NEW YORK — Every modern national political candidate has probably believed that he's been abused by television. But in 1984, that changed. That was the year a national candidate felt that she was abused by television. Geraldine Ferraro has bones to pick in her just-published book, "My Story," written with Linda Bird Francke.
Ferraro doesn't go so far as to blame television for the fact that she and Walter Mondale lost resoundingly to Ronald Reagan and what's-his-name. But in the course of recounting the campaign and the experience of being the first female vice-presidential candidate of one of the two major parties, she cites a few offenders among those who questioned her on TV.
It seems that Geraldine ran into a few male chauvinist prigs.
Marvin Kalb of NBC News, host of "Meet the Press," is singled out for having asked her on that program, "Are you strong enough to push the button?" Ferraro says she was asked that simplistic question only because she is a woman. "It was so endlessly annoying to be presumed as weak and indecisive simply because I was a woman," she writes.
Then she gives it to the "arrogant" Ted Koppel of "ABC News Nightline" for the way he "grilled me to the point of rudeness on my position on anti-satellite weapons. . . . " Those who saw the program probably remember the way Koppel's usual tough questioning turned curiously surly.
"There I was," Ferraro writes, "less than three weeks from Election Day, still undergoing a foreign-policy exam instead of examining the differences between the two tickets. How counterproductive. And how arrogant of my interrogators."
Next on the firing line is Phil Donahue, on whose show Ferraro appeared late in the campaign. In the book, she scores the press for leaping too lustily and voraciously on suggestions of irregularities in her husband John Zaccaro's finances. She thought she was going on "Donahue" to discuss "the issues." When will candidates ever learn that "the issues" don't often make for very good television?
"Instead of discussing the issues or even the significance of my candidacy to women," Ferraro writes, "Donahue spent at least half the show on my finances, my family background, and John's finances. I was getting increasingly disappointed at the turn the show was taking." Luckily, she writes, a questioner in the audience managed to get the show "on a more substantive track."
How much attention should be paid to Ferraro's complaints? Probably not much. As the first woman to be in this situation, she was bound to get the worst of it as well as the best of it.
Near the end of her protracted postmortem, she declares that the "fallout" from her candidacy will help women achieve higher status in all lines of work, including journalism. Her candidacy made newspaper editors and TV news producers "aware that the majority of their women reporters were still automatically hired in 'light' news areas and allowed to have no political experience. I'm sure that won't happen again so easily."
It would be beneficial if Ferraro's candidacy made women more visible in political reporting on TV. Just about every Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," one sees four middle-aged white males sitting around chomping on the news. Rarely is a woman present.
There are other references to television sprinkled through Ferraro's book. She makes the rather alarming confession that during preparation for a TV debate, she fell asleep while watching a rented copy of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" on a VCR. This is a movie that no good American would admit to falling asleep by.
She also boasts, not too convincingly, of her facility with the TelePrompTer, the gizmo that crawls words by in front of a camera lens. It's more important for a politician to look comfortable with one of these babies than to know how to kiss a real baby. Ferraro says of her first try: "Miraculously, it looked as if I had been using a TelePrompTer all my life." Wanna bet?
A spokesman for the publisher insists that "My Story" is not "a whiny book," but whines do flow. One is left with the reinforced suspicion that Ferraro was the wrong woman in the right place at the right time. Since she only deals with the campaign, she doesn't discuss the Pepsi commercial for which she was later paid a reported $500,000. The commercial was a flop, and Pepsi pulled it off the air after only brief exposure.
Thus Ferraro was rejected both by the voters and by the viewers, and there are lots more viewers than voters. What did her in, in addition to Walter Mondale, is that when people turn on their television sets, apparently they do not want to see her there.