In 1976, Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole campaigned at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. I briefly interviewed him there as a college newspaper reporter. He was known then as a “hatchet man,” running cover for the well-behaved President Gerald Ford.
A week after Ford/Dole lost narrowly to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, a cartoon depicted Carter as making a list of key people who helped him get elected. The list went like this: “African-Americans, women, moderates, Southerners, Bob Dole…” Sen. Dole’s brashness costed votes.
When people today assess Trumpism, they often forget one person who was loved and admired by small town folk, members of the working class, blue-collar workers, and farmers. That was Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who ran on the Republican ticket with presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.
“I grew up with those [small town] people in mind, who do some of the hardest work in America, who make our food, run our factories, and fight our wars,” Palin said in accepting the 2008 nomination. “They love their country, in good times and bad, and they are always proud of America.”
The target audience, which was small-towners and “forgotten” blue-collar workers, fell in love with the 44-year-old, charming mother of five. Most of the press and Hollywood stars lambasted Palin. They feared she could help McCain win, and they simply didn’t care for people who eat catfish instead of caviar.
“She’s a hockey mom and she [may have to] face down President Putin,” said actor Matt Damon. “It’s totally absurd. It’s really terrifying. I need to know if she really thinks dinosaurs were here 4,000 years ago. I want to know because she’s gonna have the nuclear codes.”
As of 2020, Palin is the only female candidate for GOP nod for president, ever. There was an effort in 1976 to have Anne Armstrong, then-U.S. Ambassador to the UK, as Ford’s running mate. But Bob Dole was chosen.
Palin’s lack of knowledge in foreign affairs showed in a tough interview with Katie Couric of CBS. It hurt her image a lot. McCain/Palin lost 53% to 46% to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. With McCain at age 71, having a veep with deep knowledge of international and domestic affairs was much preferred.
I was not pleased with Palin’s inexperience, but I voted for her and McCain because I was closer to their economic and military views than Sen. Obama’s. Still, I admired Palin for challenging the press by standing up for small-town citizens. Since 2008, Palin had several TV shows from Alaska, was a commentator for Fox News and was one of the first national politicians to support Donald Trump in 2015/2016.
“Tonight, the daughter of a woman whose highest goal was a future for her children talks to our nation’s oldest party about a future for us all,” said Geraldine Ferraro, first-female major-party VP candidate, in July 1984. “Tonight, the daughter of working Americans tells all Americans the future is within our reach — if we’re willing to reach for it.”
Ferraro was a three-term Democratic congresswoman running with Walter Mondale, a former vice president. Having a woman on the ticket at first drew praise, especially from Democrats. But Ferraro lost luster due to damaging questions about her family finances and those of her businessman husband John Zaccaro. She became a TV commentator, served as an ambassador on human rights issues and twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in New York.
In the 1984 election, Mondale and Ferraro lost in a landslide to President Reagan and VP George H.W. Bush. At Ferraro’s funeral in March 2011, Mondale called her “a remarkable woman and a dear human being … She was a pioneer in our country for justice for women and a more open society. She broke a lot of molds and it’s a better country for what she did.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, 56, born of a multi-cultural family, is slated to become the highest-ranking female elected official as veep. She will be the first African American, first Asian American, and first Caribbean American to do so. She was Attorney General of California (2011-2017) and was a U.S. Senator in 2017. (Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, is the only woman nominated for president by a major party, but she was defeated by Republican Donald J. Trump.)
These three women — Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Kamala Harris — exuded charm, but like Bob Dole they had steel in them, too. As for Sarah Palin, on those cold nights in Wasilla, Alaska, she is comforted by a special knowledge. She was one of the first politicians to recognize small-town people for what most of them are – hard working American patriots.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 21 years. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. He was U.S. Army Europe Journalist of the Year (1993) for articles from Croatia, Macedonia and Germany.