What Romney Can Learn From Geraldine Ferraro

Campaigning was fun -- up to a point, wrote Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president: “Every time I faced the press, however, I was besieged with questions about our finances. It was brutal.”

If Mitt Romney is feeling misunderstood and put upon, he might want to pick up Ferraro's memoir and read about the frenzy over her financial disclosure forms and her husband's tax returns.  Then again, he might not.

Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, had assets of less than $4 million. Mitt Romney may be worth 100 times that. Ferraro, Walter Mondale's surprise pick in 1984 as his vice presidential nominee, had days (that stretched excruciatingly to weeks) to get her affairs in order. Romney, by a conservative measure, has been running for president for five years. Zaccaro ran a small real estate company with haphazard accounting. Romney ran a powerful private equity firm with high-octane accountants and lawyers to manage the details.

Still, given that even many Republicans have called on Romney to release his taxes, the reading might be instructive. Romney is having serious trouble explaining how he could be chairman, CEO and president of Bain without being involved. Here's Ferraro on the difficulty of explaining how she was officially listed as a principal of a firm while being largely ignorant of its actual operations:

How could I justify taking the spousal exemption on my congressional forms, for example, claiming that I knew nothing about John’s business, when I had listed myself as an officer of P. Zaccaro Co. Inc., and as part-owner? Because my involvement was merely titular, I explained.

In order to put the tax questions to rest, Ferraro on Aug. 21, 1984 did something that seems unimaginable in the scripted reality show that is a 21st century campaign. A couple hundred journalists crammed into the ballroom of the Viscount Hotel near Kennedy Airport. After prepping for hours, Ferraro told them she would answer every question from every person in the room.

After almost two hours in front of  a battery of microphones, she won respect but no respite. Here is Sam Roberts' account in the next day's New York Times:

Mrs. Ferraro conceded that the fact that she was an officer of P. Zaccaro Company but ''never, never had authority'' to sign company checks was ''sloppy.''

The New York Times article hinted that Ferraro's troubles might not be over:

In Dallas, Ed Rollins, President Reagan's campaign manager, said that Mrs. Ferraro had become ''a drag'' on the Democratic ticket. Asked if her disclosures this week had resolved questions that have been raised about her finances, Mr. Rollins told reporters: ''She's got some very significant questions she still has to respond to. It's over when you people quit asking her questions.''

Those questions never stopped. Not even after the 1984 campaign ended. When Ferraro ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1992 (and employed this blogger), the same questions resurfaced.

No one outside Romney's camp knows what his taxes contain, or whether releasing them will settle the issues or raise new (and potentially more damaging) questions. As it happened, Ferraro and Zaccaro paid, on average, about 40 percent of their income in taxes. That's one plot point from which Romney's story surely diverges from Ferraro's.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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