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Reagan's Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Reelection Campaign's Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro

Five days later Walter Mondale announced Geraldine Ferraro as his vice presidential running mate in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mondale might as well have set off a bomb at Reagan-Bush headquarters. For months the atmosphere on the fourth floor, where the campaign’s executive suites were clustered, had been placid. With no primary opponents, the Reagan team spent its time leisurely developing its organization in all fifty states and honing the reelection strategy.

The morning after Mondale’s announcement was different. Phones rang up and down the corridor. Young aides hustled between offices. The clattering of IBM Selectric typewriters and the screech of dial-up modems was incessant and the blue haze of cigarette smoke was more intense than usual.

Mondale blindsided us with his choice of Ferraro. Never before had a major party nominated a woman for vice president. Despite rumors that the congresswoman from Queens was being pushed by House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the campaign leadership considered Ferraro so unlikely a choice that they focused their attention on other possible running mates.

The press office was bombarded by reporters wanting the campaign’s response. Jim Lake had his hands full dealing with journalists. Deputy Press Secretary John Buckley, who fielded most of the calls, kept darting out from behind the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster that screened the glass partition of his office to go down the hall to Ed Rollins' suite. John was in his mid-twenties and had gotten his start in writing as a rock critic for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.

Buckley, normally light-hearted and easy-going, looked harried. He had to pass my office to see Ed’s longtime assistant and girlfriend, Michele Davis, who was next door to me. You could measure the campaign’s consternation by the number of lines lighting up on the phones outside Rollins’ office and the number of aides asking Michele when they could get a few minutes of his time.

We had no idea how to respond to a woman on the Democratic ticket. No polling had been done on the contingency that Mondale might pick a female running mate. Despite Nofziger’s intuition in Normandy, the campaign simply had not focused on Ferraro. We knew nothing about her: her history, her voting record in Congress, or her positions on major policy issues. We hadn’t tested themes or talking points, and we didn’t know what kind of statements would be politically productive, or counter-productive.

This was the second time we had been caught flat-footed. The first lapse was when Senator Gary Hart unexpectedly surged in the Democratic primaries and looked like he might wrest the nomination away from Mondale. Wirthlin’s first estimate gave Hart a fifty-fifty chance of winning the nomination. No opposition research had been done on Hart because he seemed like a longshot. Nancy Reagan seethed when she learned that the reelection team didn’t have a strategy for handling Hart in case he broke through and beat Mondale for the nomination.

I lit another Marlboro while listening to the squawk of my dial-up modem connecting with our “Voices for Victory” computer bulletin board. The state-of-the-art system connected Reagan-Bush headquarters with state campaign offices and key officials. In addition to disseminating talking points, it was used to share information. Ferraro was scheduled to hold her first news conference after Mondale’s announcement and I wanted to see what guidance, if any, we were putting out. Wirthlin was hurriedly taking a poll on the reaction to Ferraro. Until he had results, the guidance was to refrain from saying anything about Ferraro.

In his corner office, next to Michele’s, Rollins had CNN tuned in. Buckley turned away from Michele’s desk. As he stepped into the corridor I stopped him.

“John, do me a favor,” I said, “Can you get me the wire copy on Ferraro’s news conference when it’s available?”

“Sure,” he said, “I’ll drop off one for you along with Ed’s.”

He looked like he would have preferred that I make my own copy. John wasn’t really sure what my role was on the campaign.

It was only a hunch but I thought Geraldine Ferraro was worth watching closely. One thing I’d learned about conventional wisdom is that it only applies in conventional circumstances. Ferraro’s candidacy for vice president was unprecedented. That meant no matter what past experience showed regarding voters casting their ballots for the bottom of the ticket, voters had never had a choice like this before. We were in uncharted territory where statistical data from past elections was irrelevant.

Among the flood of calls that inundated campaign headquarters was one from Mike McManus, Deaver’s deputy. McManus said that Roy Cohn had jumped on a plane to Washington as soon as he learned of Ferraro’s nomination. Cohn was a longtime intimate of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, dating back to when Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild. He had been Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s “Red Scare,” when fears of Communist penetration of the State Department featured in McCarthy’s hearings in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A few years earlier, in 1947, Reagan had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about the importance of keeping Marxist influence out of Hollywood.

Somewhere along the way the Reagans and Cohn forged an enduring relationship. When Reagan decided to run for president in 1980, Mike Deaver gave Roger Stone, Reagan’s regional political director for the Northeast, Cohn’s name and number. Deaver told Stone to get in touch with Cohn for help on the campaign.

McManus told Rollins that Cohn had come to the White House with inside information about Geraldine Ferraro. A meeting was set up for 11:00 a.m. on July 13th between Rollins and Cohn. I was told to attend. When I asked Michele if she had any idea about the nature of Cohn’s information, she shook her head and smiled. I’d worked with Michele on the 1980 campaign and knew that smile well. It meant she wasn’t going to tell me anything, but she knew I would like what I found out.

The following morning I skipped Lyn’s attack meeting. I was reading everything I could lay my hands on about Ferraro before the meeting with Roy Cohn. I wanted to get some context for whatever information he had. After leaving the Senate, Cohn practiced law. He had some interesting clients. One of them was Carmine Galante, at one time the “capo di tutti capi” or Godfather of America’s five Mafia crime families. Another was Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, godfather of the Genovese family.

I had a fresh shot of coffee before the meeting began, straightened my tie, and went to Rollins’ office to wait for his arrival.

Cohn had a suntan that looked like he had either just come from a beach vacation or a tanning bed. His grey hair was close-cropped, and his piercing blue eyes seemed to conceal a thousand years of experiences. He was amiable but got straight down to business.

He said that Geraldine Ferraro and her husband, John Zaccaro, had ties to the Mafia. He told us that Zaccaro ran a family real estate business and rented one property to a major pornography distributor linked to organized crime.

Cohn said the Gambino branch of the Mafia had links to Ferraro and Zaccaro. He said if Ferraro’s campaign contributions and her husband’s business associations were scrutinized, we would find the connections.