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Gerry and the Glass Ceiling

Tom Degan: That her heart was in the right place on most issues there can be little doubt. The pity of it all is that her biography will be forever littered with those damned "What ifs".

A raising of the glass and a tip of the old fedora this evening to the late Geraldine Ferraro .


Of all the photographs in my archives, the one above I cherish the most. It was taken on a rainy day in the autumn of 1992 at the home of my cousin Hillary Cullen.That's me on the far left (Surprise! Surprise!) During that long ago, more innocent time, not only was I a registered Democrat - I was proud of the fact. It had not yet dawned on me that the Democratic party had sold its soul to the highest bidder. My awakening was another six years in the future. You live and learn. Someday maybe they'll wake up and remember what they're supposed to be all about; whom they are supposed to represent. I'm not holding my breath - you shouldn't either.

As casual as I appear in this picture, I was keenly aware at the moment that a photographer by the name of Abril Adams was enshrining my image - for all time and eternity - next to the three Democrats of the post-Roosevelt era that I admired most.

To the right of yours truly: Geraldine Ferraro, my beloved uncle (and namesake) Tom Cullen, and the late, great Paul O'Dwyer.

On that day nineteen years ago, my dear friends Tom and Marisa Frederick were celebrating the christening of their infant daughter. Now that she is a young adult, I'll fess up to her: You were my first priority on that blessed day, Nicole. But I just had to break away from your party for twenty minutes (and only twenty minutes - I promise!) so that I could attend a fundraiser for and meet Geraldine Ferraro, who was in the midst of a particularly nasty primary campaign, seeking the nomination to run for United States senate. You and I are now friends on Facebook. I'll take this as a hint that you have forgiven me....

Okay, maybe I was gone for an hour - but not a minute longer!

The memory of this day came rushing back to me this week when I received the news that Geraldine Ferraro passed away at a hospital in Massachusetts at the age of seventy-five. It has been said that the "glass ceiling" was broken in 2008. It you're a Democrat it was broken by Hillary Clinton. If you happen to be a Republican (and Heaven knows why) it was broken by Sarah Palin. What seems to have been forgotten by too many was Gerry Ferraro's trailblazing campaign as Walter Mondale's running mate back in 1984. If she didn't actually break the glass ceiling that year, she put one helluva crack in it.

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In my neck of the woods people were quite proud of her - and why wouldn't we have been? She was, after all, an Orange County girl, having been born in 1935 in the city of Newburgh, New York - across the river from Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt's homestead. Newburgh is also the home town of Sarah Delano, FDR's mother. Geraldine Ferraro was raised in a comfortable, middle class environment until 1944 when her father died suddenly of a heart attack. A year later her mother was forced to move the family to the Bronx. Her life's journey from this point on would take Gerry on a long road from poverty - to college - to the congress - to a place on the national ticket of a major political party. That's quite a journey - no doubt about it.

I suppose the vice-presidency was never in the cards for Geraldine Ferraro. As we all know, she and Mondale went down in flaming defeat to Ronald Reagan and George H. Dubya Bush. The morning after Election Day 1984 was a grim one I remember all too well. By that time it was obvious to me that Reagan was a senile old reactionary who should have been tucked away in some cozy nursing home somewhere, being spoon-fed oatmeal. Instead the American people (for reasons I'll never be able to understand) decided that he hadn't done enough damage to their once-great nation in his first term. Somehow they came to the mass conclusion that giving the hideous old bastard another four years would be a really neat idea. Americans are funny that way, you know? They really are!


Gerry's political career post-1984 is anticlimactic. She didn't get the nomination in '92 - losing to a pretentious, self-absorbed twit named Robert Abrams - who ran the most despicable campaign I had ever witnessed up to that time. He spent the entire primary trying to link her name to organized crime for no other reason than her Italian heritage. A real class act. When she refused to endorse him when the primaries were finished, she was accused of being a sore loser. I never could blame her. On Election Day of that year- for the first and only time since I became eligible to vote - I didn't even bother showing up at the polls. Why bother? Bob Abrams was the most disgusting pol who ever wore the label "Democrat". Whatever became of that asshole?

Ironically the victor in the election of 1993 was none other than Al D'Amato: probably the most corrupt senator to come out of New York in the twentieth century. When Gerry made another try at the primaries six years later, again she was defeated. The tragedy is that she would have made an outstanding senator I think.

During the last decade of her life she pretty much kept out of the national spotlight. She caused a bit of controversy in 2008 when, as a supporter of the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, she told a reporter from the Daily Breeze "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." A statement that made absolutely so sense whatsoever. Subsequent television appearances she made in order to clarify these remarks didn't help matters at all. It was sadly obvious that advancing age was beginning to take its toll on her mental capacities.This was not the vibrant woman the country had been introduced to twenty-four years earlier. It was too sad for words.

Still, when her public life is eventually assessed, I believe historians will give Geraldine Ferraro both thumbs up. That her heart was in the right place on most issues there can be little doubt. The pity of it all is that her biography will be forever littered with those damned "What ifs". I hate those things, don't you?

Here's to you, Gerry!

Tom Degan