In the spring of 1998, when a young intern named Lewinsky was making headlines for her role in the White House, I received a call regarding another woman who had made history 14 years earlier in her bid to serve in the executive branch. Was I available to help Geraldine Ferraro prepare for a humor speech she was scheduled to deliver at Albany’s answer to Washington’s Gridiron Club? Having gotten my start writing humorous speeches on the 1988 presidential campaign of Mike Dukakis, I answered that I had never written for any national candidate who had received less than 111 Electoral votes but was willing to give it a try.
Only weeks earlier, the former Queens congresswomen turned vice presidential candidate had joined a three-way Democratic primary against Congressman Charles Schumer and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green to oppose Senator Alfonse D’Amato in his bid for re-election. And Ferraro’s campaign brass had decided that a funny speech delivered to the New York state press corps at their annual Legislative Correspondents Dinner might help her launch a winning campaign and resuscitate a once-promising career. It was a bold move to be sure: Ferraro had a famously testy relationship with the New York press corps who more often depicted her as an imperious celebrity than serious political figure. Also, the press believed her to be less than forthcoming with regard to the business associates of her husband, John Zaccaro, and the financial details of his various enterprises.
Over the course of a few meetings in her campaign office, we began a conversation about what she was willing—and unwilling—to joke about. Although she was guarded at first, we traded ideas about jokes she might tell and soon small chuckles gave way to louder and louder laughs that emboldened her to try out material on topics she had never considered very funny. Before our brainstorming sessions were over, Geraldine Ferraro had figured out for herself that in politics, things are only as bad as the stuff you can’t joke about.
The result was a speech with which she earned loud laughs and heartfelt applause from a ballroom of cynical state house reporters. In the context of her unsuccessful Senate bid of 1998, it’s probably safe to assume that this dinner ranked among her better moments. And for a woman made famous for making history while losing in a landslide, her words that evening offer a glimpse at Geraldine Ferraro at her most winning.
REMARKS OF REP. GERALDINE FERRARO 98TH ANNUAL LEGISLATIVE CORRESPONDENTS ASSOCIATION DINNER ALBANY, NY JUNE 13, 1998
MUSIC UP: FROM EVITA, INSTRUMENTAL RECORDING OF “ON THE BALCONY OF THE CASA ROSADA” (AKA “DON`T CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA”)
FERRARO SINGS: Don't turn on me New York Press Corps I remember when you loved me I became an icon with your assistance I've paid my taxes Now keep your distance Don't challenge me Chucky Schumer Your money can't buy what I have Compared to others who are obnoxious you are one full notch above Ed Koch Don't pester me Mister Green So you want to be a statesman? Oh yes, your accomplishments they are well meaning I'm paying less for all my dry cleaning Don't cry for me Al D'Amato The truth is you still amaze me You would say anything -- that is a given but you've outdone yourself with that pink ribbon
Greetings press, pols and peasants: I have chosen this special occasion to respond to the persistent challenges of my critics. Tonight I will make a full and complete public disclosure of my ...sense of humor.
Do I have a sense of humor? Let me tell you something: you can’t be on a national ticket that loses 49 out of 50 states if you can’t take a joke.
You know, that’s the one thing I’ve never understood -- the people who said I’ve been running on “past glory” since 1984. What glory? Did I miss the day we had the glory? In fact, Fritz and I still argue over who deserves credit for the one state we won. He claims he won Minnesota for us because it’s his home state. And I still say I won it for us because Minnesota ends in a vowel.
But no matter what else I go on to do, I know I’ve already secured a place in America’s history books. It’s an asterisk I will always cherish.
But these many years later, the white-hot spotlight has dimmed, the balloons are long popped and the confetti’s been swept away. And all that remains is the name recognition.
In fact, if anything the effect of my name recognition is exaggerated in the polls because my opponents in this senate primary—Chuck Schumer and Mark Green—are notoriously publicity shy. While we may occasionally squabble, these are certainly worthy opponents. In fact, I am actually committed to voting for Chuck Schumer in the September 15 primary. I had to. It was the only way I could get Chuck off the phone.
But no matter our differences today, the three of us will be united by a common goal come the general election. Obviously, Alfonse will be a tough opponent. After all, wasn’t it our junior senator who once said: “That which does not convict me only makes me stronger.”
You know, I was in Washington during the time when Al made a spectacle of himself as chairman of the Senate Whitewater committee. It took me a while but I think I finally figured out what was driving Al so nuts about Whitewater. He couldn’t figure out how a person in a position of power could actually lose money on a real estate deal.
So I have no doubt this will be a tough race, both in the primaries and the general election this fall. Already there have been harsh words among the candidates and hard-hitting articles in the press. But I am prepared for the dogfight that lies ahead because I’ve already heard it all.
I’ve been called “arrogant”—but I know better.
I’ve been called “thin-skinned.” And don’t think it doesn’t hurt.
I’ve been described as someone with a heightened sense of entitlement. I think I’ve earned that.
I’ve been called a “TV pundit.” In fact, that’s my “Outrage of the Week.”
I am said to have a bad relationship with the press corps. But only with the overwhelming number of reporters who are out to get me.
I’ve recently been accused of accusing my opponents of lying and whining. Which is a lie. And a whiny one at that.
And I’ve even heard the whispers that I am somehow connected to organized crime. Now that’s outrageous! Seriously, if I had those kind of connections, then why isn’t Liz Holtzman sleeping with the fishes?
There are even some who believe I have not successfully articulated why I am in this race. They say I lack a rationale. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to try one more time:
[Music up: America the Beautiful]
My friends, I am running for the United States Senate because there is an entire building on Lafayette Street filled with “Ferraro for Senate” bumper stickers left over from ‘92 -- and I’ll be dammed if I’m just going to let them sit there and go to waste.
I am running for the United States Senate because I miss spending time with reporters.
I am running for the United States Senate because I just love giving detailed explanations of my past tax returns.
I am running for the United States Senate because my husband likes reading his name in the Village Voice.
I am running for the United States Senate because there’s this really huge pothole right in front of my house that never gets fixed no matter how many times I call Al D’Amato.
These are the reasons I am asking the voters of the state of New York for their vote. And I say -- who the hell cares whether or not The New York Times find them compelling?
Thank you all—and God bless America!
[MUSIC SWELLS. EXITS STAGE REVERSE OF ENTRANCE]
Note: These remarks have been condensed and excised of topical jokes that were perfectly funny 13 years ago but make little or no sense today.
A former political operative, recovering copywriter, and failed sitcom writer, Mark Katz is now the founder and principal of the Soundbite Institute, a creative think tank that specializes in on-message humor. His essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Time magazine, and he is the author of CLINTON & ME: A Real Life Political Comedy, an account of eight years as the in-house humor speechwriter at the Clinton White House.