Tonight’s presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and—God help us—Donald Trump coincides with the 56th anniversary of the infamous 1960 sweaty Nixon/hottie Kennedy matchup. But perhaps a more interesting prelude would be the 1984 vice presidential face off between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, in which she complained of his “patronizing attitude.”
It’s truly something looking back over the coverage of the debate. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say in August, when Bush apparently looked a little noncommittal:
Looks like a case of male nerves to us. To be sure, an awful lot could go wrong for Mr. Bush just in the mere psychological and emotional drama of the encounter. He would have to be careful not to appear a bully or a brute or a condescending MCP, and it would look awful if, while doing all this, he nevertheless managed to get skunked on the issues by an opponent wearing earrings. But it is also true that there are just as many imponderables and pitfalls for Rep. Ferraro. Read “shrew” for “brute” and “bully,” and keep in mind that she would be entering the debate with a particular handicap: the merest sign of ignorance or confusion would tend to confirm worry about her qualifications for the job. But she is willing to risk it. Why isn’t he?
Clearly everyone went into this thing with a keen sense of its potential gender politics. The big moment came after Bush launched into a foreign-policy spiel with, “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Once he’d wound down, Ferraro parried: “Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent Vice President Bush for his patronizing attitude that he has to teach me about foreign policy.” Centuries of sexist assumptions about men’s superior strategic abilities notwithstanding, he sure walked right into that one.
Adding another layer to this story: In the days leading up to the debate, Barbara Bush had informed a couple of reporters that they at least weren’t making any secret of their wealth, “not like that four million-dollar - I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” (According to New York Times coverage from the time, she thought they were off the record.) Mrs. Bush apologized, but of course the incident made that week’s Saturday Night Live:
And on the day of the debate, the Wall Street Journal published the assessment of Bush’s press secretary, Peter Teeley, who suggested that Ferraro came across as “too bitchy” and “She’s very arrogant. Humility isn’t one of her strong points, and I think that comes through.” UPI reported his follow-up remarks:
Adding spice — and a bit of controversy — to the pre-debate hype, Teeley confirmed that he described Ferraro in one news report as ‘too bitchy.’
‘What I meant by that,’ he explained, ‘is that ... essentially she has to come across tonight as not being screechy or scratchy. If you have to use the word ‘bitchy,’ that’s adequate.’
He denied the word had sexist implications, saying it was synonymous with ‘crabby.’
Of course, by the standards of this year’s election, the debate and surrounding controversies come across as downright genteel. When the pair reunited for an NBC interview in 2008, on the eve of the Biden/Palin VP debate, they said they were friendly and Bush admitted Ferraro’s rebuttal to him was a good line.
Perhaps the most telling line thirty years later isn’t from Bush, but one of the questions, which began Ferraro’s lack of military experience and then segued into, “do you think in any way that the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a women.” Place your bets whether we’ll hear some version of that sentiment onstage tonight!