Video: Political pioneer Ferraro dies at 75

  1. Transcript of: Political pioneer Ferraro dies at 75

    THOMAS ROBERTS, anchor: We begin with the death of a political icon. Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice presidential nominee of a major political party . The 75-year-old passed away Saturday of blood cancer. NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell has a look back at her extraordinary life.

    Ms. GERALDINE FERRARO: Vice president has such a nice ring to it.

    Mr. WALTER MONDALE: This is an exciting choice!

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: Ferraro became Walter Mondale 's running mate in 1984 , what Time labeled "a historic choice." Sudden fame for the New York congresswoman, the daughter of an Italian immigrant. Gender became a campaign issue, and Ferraro fought back.

    President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro , between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon .

    Ms. FERRARO: Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush , your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.

    O'DONNELL: Her first-of-its-kind candidacy ended with a landslide defeat when President Reagan and Vice President Bush won re-election. And there were personal setbacks. Married more than 50 years, her husband John Zaccaro convicted in 1985 for financial fraud. Twice Ferraro ran for US Senate , but failed. Then in 1998 she was diagnosed with an incurable form of bone marrow cancer.

    Ms. FERRARO: I don't want to have a big C on my face because that's not me. I mean, I'm still going to go on and do the things I do.

    O'DONNELL: And she did. A writer and political commentator, a grandmother who said she looked back with no regrets.

    Ms. FERRARO: My marriage has been spectacular, my kids are wonderful. And I look at what comes next and, for me, I believe strongly in an afterlife. So I'm perfectly -- I'm literally perfectly content.

    O'DONNELL: Geraldine Ferraro gave women a big victory just being in the race. Kelly O'Donnell, NBC News, Washington.

updated 3/26/2011 8:37:15 PM ET 2011-03-27T00:37:15

Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major U.S. party ticket, died Saturday in Boston, a family spokeswoman said.

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Ferraro died at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was being treated for blood cancer. She died just before 10 a.m. EST, said Amanda Fuchs Miller, a family friend who worked for Ferraro in her 1998 Senate bid and was acting as a spokeswoman for the family.

A three-term congresswoman from the New York City borough of Queens, Ferraro catapulted to national prominence in 1984 when she was chosen by presidential nominee Walter Mondale to join his ticket against incumbents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Video: Political pioneer Ferraro dies at 75 (on this page)

In the end, Reagan won 49 of 50 states, the largest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first re-election over Alf Landon in 1936. But Ferraro had forever sealed her place as trailblazer for women in national politics, laying the path for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic presidential bid in 2008 and Republican John McCain's choice of a once obscure Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate that year.

Mondale remembered his former running mate as "a remarkable woman and a dear human being."

Palin praises Ferraro

"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," Mondale told The Associated Press.

Palin paid tribute to Ferraro on her Facebook page on Saturday.

"She broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more," Palin wrote. "May her example of hard work and dedication to America continue to inspire all women."

Bush, Ferraro's vice-presidential rival in 1984, praised Ferraro for "the dignified and principled manner she blazed new trails for women in politics." He said that after the 1984 race, "Gerry and I became friends in time — a friendship marked by respect and affection."

The two famously sparred in a nationally televised debate that year where Ferraro accused Bush of a "patronizing attitude" toward her. And Bush's wife, Barbara, said Ferraro was a word that "rhymed with rich."

Video: Geraldine Ferraro on MTP October 14, 1984 (on this page)

'America is the land where dreams can come true'
Ferraro stepped into the national spotlight at the Democratic convention in 1984 after Mondale selected her as his running mate. Delegates in San Francisco erupted in cheers at the first line of her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.

"My name is Geraldine Ferraro," she declared. "I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."

Her acceptance speech launched eight minutes of cheers, foot-stamping and tears.

Ferraro sometimes overshadowed former Vice President Mondale on the campaign trail, often drawing larger crowds and more media attention than the presidential candidate.

But controversy accompanied her acclaim. Frequent, vociferous protests of her favorable view of abortion rights marked the campaign.

Ferraro's run also was beset by ethical questions, first about her campaign finances and tax returns, then about the business dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.

Mondale said he selected Ferraro as a bold stroke to counter his poor showing in polls against President Reagan and because he felt America lagged far behind other democracies in elevating women to top leadership roles.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro
Jack Smith  /  AP file
Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, wave as they leave an afternoon rally in Portland, Ore., in this Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1984 file photo.

"The time had come to eliminate the barriers to women of America and to reap the benefits of drawing talents from all Americans, including women," Mondale said.

After the '84 campaign
In the years after the race, Ferraro told interviewers that she would have not have accepted the nomination had she known how it would focus criticism on her family.

"You don't deliberately submit people you love to something like that," she told presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in an interview in Ladies Home Journal. "I don't think I'd run again for vice-president," she said, then paused, laughed and said, "Next time I'd run for president."

Zaccaro pleaded guilty in 1985 to a misdemeanor charge of scheming to defraud in connection with obtaining financing for the purchase of five apartment buildings. Two years later he was acquitted of trying to extort a bribe from a cable television company.

Video: Ferraro passes away at age 75 (on this page)

Ferraro's son, John Zaccaro Jr., was convicted in 1988 of selling cocaine to an undercover Vermont state trooper and served three months under house arrest.

Some observers said the legal troubles were a drag on Ferraro's later political ambitions, which included her unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.

Ferraro, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was back in the news in March 2008 when she stirred up a controversy by appearing to suggest that Sen. Barack Obama achieved his status in the presidential race only because he's black.

She later stepped down from an honorary post in the Clinton campaign, but insisted she meant no slight against Obama.

In a statement Saturday, Obama praised Ferraro as a trailblazer who had made the world better for his daughters.

"Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live," Obama said.

From law to politics to CNN
Ferraro received a law degree from Fordham University in 1960, the same year she married Zaccaro and became a full-time homemaker and mother. She said she kept her maiden name to honor her mother, a widow who had worked long hours as a seamstress.

After years in a private law practice, she took a job as an assistant Queens district attorney in 1974. She headed the office's special victims' bureau, which prosecuted sex crimes and the abuse of children and the elderly. In 1978, she won the first of three terms in Congress representing a working-class district of Queens.

After losing in 1984, she became a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University until an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1992.

She returned to the law after her 1992 Senate run, acting as an advocate for women raped during ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Her advocacy work and support of President Bill Clinton won her the position of ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where she served in 1994 and 1995.

She co-hosted CNN's "Crossfire," in 1996 and 1997 but left to take on Chuck Schumer, then a little-known Brooklyn congressman, in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary in New York. She placed a distant second, declaring her political career finished after she took 26 percent of the vote to Schumer's 51 percent.

In June 1999, she announced that she was joining a Washington, D.C., area public relations firm to head a group advising clients on women's issues.

Ferraro revealed two years later that she had been diagnosed with blood cancer.

She discussed blood cancer research before a Senate panel that month and said she hoped to live long enough "to attend the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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