When It's a Woman

updated 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate no one had given a thought to what a Vice-Presidential candidate's hair ought to look like, or how the candidate should dress, walk and talk. Certainly nobody would have had the temerity to speculate on whether Fritz would ever give his sidekick a kiss. Now they have, and Ferraro has a word for it: "Silliness." Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder agrees. "It's stupid. All this focus on her haircuts, hemlines, manners and how many pearls she has really trivializes Gerry's candidacy. It is an affront to all women." Ferraro hasn't issued any statements on who designs her clothes, but she is finding that some voters may be more preoccupied with the labels on her dresses than her stands on the issues. Like it or not, the Ferraro image is going to be a crucial part of the campaign, unless or until the novelty fades. Ray Strother, media consultant to Gary Hart, has done studies on women candidates and found that they face far fiercer scrutiny by the voters than do male pols.

"In focus groups, I would sit behind a two-way mirror and watch groups of people discuss specific candidates," explains Strother. "When the candidate was female they would talk about the issues, but they would also talk about her style of dress and her family relationships and concern themselves with things that would never come up in discussions of male candidates." Harriett Woods, who lost a 1982 race in Missouri for the U.S. Senate, is in agreement. "A woman is judged by the way she looks, what she wears, her mannerisms, the color of her hair, her style," she says.

Schroeder concedes that one reason such subjects come up is that there is no accepted national model for the way a woman politician should look and behave. Part of making history, for Ferraro, will be creating one as she goes along.

To kiss or not to kiss is just one of the questions, albeit one that emerged almost immediately. The buss fuss came to the fore the very day Walter Mondale named Ferraro as his running mate, then stood there looking, as Democratic campaign consultant Robert Squier put it, "like a teenager on a first date."

The new Democratic team, each with one arm waving and one hung limply by his/her side, may have taken its hands-off cue from abroad. In other countries female bigwigs are never kissed in public, except by effusive foreigners, generally Americans. When President Jimmy Carter pecked the cheek of Britain's Queen Mother, a widow since 1952, she is said to have commented with no great pleasure, "That is the first man who has kissed me since my husband." When Ronald Reagan bussed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last June it struck the British people as oddly overdemonstrative. Though an Italian politician might pinch a girl's derriere, he would never hug or kiss a female colleague. "It would violate the rules of manly and political dignity and would only cause horror and scandal," is the way one Roman parliamentarian put it. The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir opened her own doors, lit her own cigarettes and dodged Menachem Begin in the Knesset dining room because he always tried to kiss her hand.

The problem in transporting this chilly policy to the U.S. is that American politicians of both sexes love to kiss and touch people, and look odd when they don't. "That was an awkward moment the first time Ferraro and Mondale were together and they didn't know how to react to each other," says imagemaker Strother. "They weren't being natural and it was kind of stiff. Attention was called to their lack of spontaneity."

Fresh from San Francisco, Gerry Ferraro appeared on the floor of the House of Representatives to be greeted by a coed orgy of smooching and hugging. She offered one cheek and then the other, even puckering up now and again for pals. "Political people are much more demonstrative than people in other professions," explains Congresswoman Lindy Boggs of Louisiana. "People feel as if they're your friends. It's merely a physical demonstration of affection or enthusiasm or joy."

If so, why can't Mondale kiss his running person, as she is sometimes described by nervous types desperately anxious to avoid the sexual suggestiveness of the word mate? "He and she have to be careful," warns Mrs. Gladstone Williams, who has taught protocol to members of Congress and diplomats in Washington for more than 20 years. "There are always people ready to jump on any little gesture. The candidates are working companions. Do you kiss your boss in the morning?"

Ferraro herself has taken no stand; she graciously accepts pecks on the cheek and endures the chummiest embraces from her political mentor, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. Says campaign-shaper Squier, "He's probably come close to breaking her back a couple of times."

The Mondale team will be handling Ferraro more gently. "No one wants to change her," says a Mondale speech writer. "We're not dealing with an inflatable doll here." Says Congresswoman Schroeder, "She's dynamic and a good speaker, a great balance for Mondale. They'd be crazy to try and change that." Nevertheless, Ferraro may have to slow her rapid-fire speaking style and stop swallowing her words. Endearing phrases such as "I gotta tell ya" and "Can we talk?" are also likely to be deleted from her lexicon. And Strother says he would recommend that she moderate her New York accent. "It sounds perfectly natural in the Northeast," he observes, "but when you get to the West and South it sounds abrupt."

A more substantive problem is the hoary tradition of casting the vice-presidential nominee as a tough-talking political hatchet man, allowing the presidential candidate to travel the high road. "If the Democrats do that this time," says Washington Times columnist Aram Bakshian Jr., "they run the risk of having Mondale come off looking like a wimp and Ferraro looking like a shrew."

But the problems are not all on the Democratic side. The Republicans too face a puzzler. "It's hard for men to find the best strategy for campaigning against a woman," says GOP Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas. "It's like hitting a marshmallow. Either you appear too aggressive, or as though you can't handle it." The dilemma was demonstrated on the day Ferraro was nominated, when a White House strategist wisely observed, "We can't come on as chauvinists," and then described the candidate as "shrill" and "pushy" and—cutely, he may have thought—referred to her husband, John Zaccaro, as "Mr. Ferraro."

If Ferraro's campaign role is still being defined, her wardrobe has already passed muster. "She doesn't come across as a prima donna, as someone who spends a lot of time on her appearance," says Brenda York, founder of the Washington-based Association of Fashion and Image Consultants. "Yet her image does project authority and seriousness. If you look at Nancy Reagan, you think about clothes: Is that an Adolfo? But Ferraro's clothes are such that you zero in on her." Susan Bixler, author of The Professional Image, applauds Ferraro for resisting the navy-blue suit and buttoned-up blouse look and going for bright colors instead. "She's not making a fashion statement, but a statement of energy, verve and excitement," says Bixler. "She's a wonderful contrast to Mondale, who needed some spicing up."

Ferraro cannot neglect restocking her wardrobe. While a male candidate can get away with wearing the same blue suit over and over, Strother noticed when showing commercials that women watched other women more closely; they say, "If I see that blue dress one more time I'll scream."

If Ferraro has made a single sartorial mistake, it may have been the white coatdress she wore for her acceptance speech. More than one woman considered the color simply too impractical for serious work. Bixler, though, thought the white symbolized a new beginning, a clean slate. "It could even be interpreted as an imitation of a marriage," she says. "Ferraro is not marrying Walter Mondale, but there's a union, a partnership. I'm sure a lot of thought went into that dress."

The current fascination with Ferraro's every personal quirk is, say the cooler heads, not so much silly as temporary. Gerry-watching is "not frivolous," says Connecticut Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly. "Automatically everything about her became interesting. Right now the focus is on newness, womanliness, excitement, the fun stuff. But as the campaign goes on, the focus will be issues, issues, issues..." Naturally Kennelly believes her fellow Democrat will prove equal to that test as well and compares her to Connecticut's late governor, Ella Grasso. Like Ella, Gerry is a mature woman, "comfortable working with men and women," she says. "Ella never worried whether a man was a sexist, and Gerry won't either. If you don't notice it, it doesn't happen."

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