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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Ferraro Fuels Debate Debate

December 02, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Still refuse to believe that televised candidate debates are anything but worthless charades? Geraldine Ferraro can set you straight.

In her new biography, "Ferraro," America's first female major vice presidential candidate recounts her experience as Walter Mondale's running mate in the 1984 campaign. The book's a good read. It's as earthy and unpretentious as Ferraro, and just as partisan.

She takes numerous shots at the media, charging that Ted Koppel, Phil Donahue, NBC's Marvin Kalb and others who interviewed her either were tougher on her because she was female or unfairly dwelled on the controversial financial dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. Well, maybe.

Because of her sex, Ferraro did get a bumpy ride from some of the media. Old media habits and biases die hard. But Zaccaro-Ferraro finances were fair game, and she should have understood that.

Far more interesting than any of this, though, is Ferraro's description of intense preparations for her 90-minute TV debate in Philadelphia with Vice President George Bush. He was probably going through the same ordeal.

TV debates are "phony" and "more like theater than an intellectual contest," she says. "You get to say so little, and what you do say is so well rehearsed that I'm not sure the public has any more idea of what the candidates really stand for than it did before the debate."

That isn't exactly news, except when it's admitted by one of the participating candidates.

The Ferraro-Bush debate was deemed important by pundits because the Democrats were counting on her to maintain momentum after Mondale's first TV debate with Ronald Reagan in which the President seemed tired and confused.

Before Ferraro and Bush faced each other on TV, however, there were important details to be ironed out. Ferraro was 5-feet-4, Bush a six-footer. "The Democrats didn't want him to be looking down at me or, and more important, me looking up at him," Ferraro says. So over Republican objections, the Democrats built a ramp that Ferraro could stand on.

That was more vice presidential.

A special staff was gathered to research Bush's record and help Ferraro cram for the debate the way students do for final exams. Bush was publicly perceived to have the greater foreign affairs experience, so Ferraro had to become "as knowledgeable about the details of foreign policy as he was." Or at least appear to be.

Ferraro's team was specialized. She had coaches for style and coaches for substance.

The team worked on her rebuttals to probable questions. She says she had "to play act, to rehearse spontaneity." So she and her staff sat in her den while they "grilled me and then refined my answers."

They set up a podium in a hotel suite and videotaped her. They fired questions at her, with one of her staff standing in for Bush, copying his mannerisms and making the points he was likely to make. Other staffers sat in for the panel of journalists who would query the two candidates. After four questions, the Ferraro team would play the tape and critique it.

She was told to stand straight and put her hands squarely on the podium. She shouldn't lean on one foot, shouldn't turn her shoulder in. No more starting answers with "Lemme tell ya," either. No more slurred words. She should speak slowly.

One of her coaches told her to study Jimmy Stewart.

Of course. When the product is theater, mimic the pros. "The correlation between Hollywood and politics was getting a bit much," Ferraro says, "but I dutifully took home (a) videocasette of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' to watch how relaxed and laid-back Jimmy Stewart appeared delivering his speeches to a celluloid Congress."

Then they moved into a rented TV studio and re-created the exact setting for the debate. Ferraro got better and better, her answers clearer and more detailed. She was told that people remember only those points made in the first two sentences.

And now only one critical issue remained before the actual debate, only one detail to be worked out after she had been repeatedly quizzed by her staff, only one more question to be answered if Geraldine Ferraro was to hold her own against a slick operator like George Bush.

"What was I going to wear?"

For the record, Ferraro wore a wool suit, against the advice of one of her aides who recommended "something bright to stand out." And for the record, she won the debate, according to her backers, and lost the debate, according to Bush backers. Ferraro's own assessment is that Bush won the battle of style and she won the battle of content.

In truth, there were no real winners, certainly not the public, which was subjected to another episode of political theater that had little bearing on the qualifications of either candidate to be America's second banana. But it was good TV.

Lemme tell ya.

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