Joe Biden’s Familiar Vice-Presidential Mistake

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event on the reopening of the U.S. economy in Philadelphia, Pa., June 11, 2020. (Bastiaan Slabbers/Reuters)
When you’ve decided in advance that the choice must be a woman, then considerations of merit become secondary.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A president widely hated and lampooned by the Left, and his uninspiring vice president, run for reelection during a turbulent time for America and the world. The incumbent’s message has been all about restoring American strength and pride, but for a highly vocal part of the electorate, he represents all that is wrong with our country and its political culture. Some of the daily attacks on the president are about substantive issues, while others are flat-out juvenile. One thing is clear: The Left wants his political career over and his work undone.

The career politician who secures the Democratic nomination to run against the despised incumbent is so eager to prove his progressive bona fides and to curry favor with liberal voters that he pledges to make history by selecting a woman to share his ticket.

We are talking, of course, about 1984, when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s VP and served in the Senate, picked Geraldine Ferraro, a Queens congresswoman, to run with him against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In the election of November 6, 1984, Mondale and Ferraro didn’t just lose; they met with a defeat of history-making proportions as Reagan swept every state except Minnesota.

In spite of what Joe Biden and his base may like to think, there is nothing new, in 2020, about Biden’s pledge to pick a woman to share the Democratic ticket, help drive Donald Trump and Mike Pence out of the White House for good, and help win the battle for the soul of the nation. Yes, the personalities involved are quite different. If I had a dollar for every time someone draws a facile and shallow historical parallel, I’d be as rich as Trump himself. Yet there are similarities between that historical moment and this one.

Biden has kept everyone in suspense for months now, but his rumored VP shortlist has gotten shorter (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Keisha Bottoms) and a choice is coming. Clearly, Biden figures that his chances are better with a female running mate who will appeal to women voters and to everyone still smarting from Hillary Clinton’s loss, and that in any event it’s appropriate and necessary in this woke moment to pick a woman.

Biden might benefit from a bit of historical perspective. Merit can and must come first. It’s possible that some of the women he may be considering as running mates at this moment got to where they are in public life through hard work and talent. But when you’ve decided in advance that the choice must be a woman, that not even the most qualified man is a viable choice, then considerations of merit become secondary. And potential flaws get ignored because Biden made a promise and he has a quota to fill.

Biden certainly could have learned from 1984. Ferraro was a terrible choice, and Mondale made it for the wrong reason. Her extensive ties to the mob, and the many lies she told about her and her husband’s business dealings, came to light in searing investigative reports published in a controversial journal that had been following her public career for years. Ferraro reportedly received generous campaign donations from known mob figures, and a fundraiser she held in 1979 presented a veritable a who’s-who of the heads of crime families. Though she maintained that her business career was entirely separate from that of her husband, mob-connected John Zaccaro, they were in fact inseparable. Ferraro and her husband relied on mob favors to shield and to protect their son in the aftermath of a cocaine conviction.

What was the trolling, rabid, right-wing source that raked through the muck and brought these sordid facts to light? Was it The American Spectator? Human Events? The magazine that give birth to this very website?

No, it was none other than the Village Voice, organ of the countercultural Left and inspiration for hundreds of progressive weeklies. From its founding by Norman Mailer and others in 1955 through its folding in September 2017, the Voice was a publication liberals could nearly always count on to try to help defeat conservative causes and candidates. But the Voice’s leftist values didn’t always supersede the imperatives of bold investigative reporting. Its August 25, 1992, cover story on Ferraro, written by Wayne Barrett and William Bastone, is an example of this.

The cover story summarized extensive findings about Ferraro’s mob ties. The authors write, “We have concluded that Geraldine Ferraro is the candidate with the most extensive intertwine of unsavory relationships that either of us has seen in two and a half decades of city investigative reporting. This story documents 24 mob associations of Ferraro’s or her husband’s, John Zaccaro, some familiar and some unknown, stretching from her political to her business to her personal life.”

But, as far as some were concerned, Ferraro was a woman, a glass-ceiling shattering figure who deserved sympathy and support for that reason alone. As the Voice reporters put it, “Whether it was because she took on the Cardinal over abortion in 1984, or simply because she was the nation’s First Woman, the city’s liberal establishment has demonstrated a willingness to tolerate misdeeds and patterns of associations from Ferraro that they would not accept from others.” As did Walter Mondale and the Democratic establishment in 1984.

Given what we know about Ferraro, one might think it is well that Mondale lost so decisively and that people might draw certain lessons. But, for some, the need to have a female ground-breaker we can celebrate and cherish is so overwhelmingly important that other considerations — even public health and safety — aren’t priorities. Take, in more recent times, the Theranos scandal.

After dropping out of Stanford University and launching the Theranos firm in 2003, 19-year-old Elizabeth Holmes pitched herself to investors, politicians, the media, and the public as a trailblazer in the startup and medical-technology fields. Her claim to fame was a machine that purportedly revolutionized blood testing, requiring amounts of blood so tiny that people could obtain them through the prick of a finger. The firm quickly raised $700 million and was on the road to a more than $10 billion valuation. Theranos blood-testing stations popped up in Walgreens. Holmes turned up on magazine covers and talk shows, appeared onstage with former president Bill Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative event, and received lavish praise from all over as a bold young female CEO shattering the glass ceilings of Silicon Valley, the tech sector, and the medical profession.

The hoax went down in flames after a University of Toronto professor published his findings that Theranos’s medical equipment wasn’t anything like the brilliant breakthrough the company claimed, and after Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou (who went on to write a bestseller about the scandal, Bad Blood) revealed that Theranos was, in fact, using already widely used testing gear. Further investigations brought to light a toxic workplace culture of fraud, secrecy, intimidation, and mistreatment of employees. The dirt was so humiliating that the firm’s top scientist, biochemist Ian Gibbons, took his own life rather than appear in court to testify about what went on behind the scenes.

For all the talk, at the time, about the history-making nature of the Mondale/Ferraro ticket, the Ferraro story and the Elizabeth Holmes fiasco follow a depressing historical pattern. Much as the Voice would do in its reporting on Ferraro’s mob ties, leftist cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote eloquently about politically motivated distortions of the record of someone whom feminists very much wanted to claim as a female trailblazer and glass ceiling-smasher. That someone was Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), the German documentary filmmaker best known for Triumph of the Will.

Feminists, like some of the organizers of the 1973 New York Film Festival, and Riefenstahl herself tried to whitewash the filmmaker’s record over the years, subscribing to the notion that Riefenstahl was a filmmaker who happened to live and work during the Third Reich rather than a Nazi fanatic who willingly put her gifts to work in Hitler’s cause. Sontag would have none of this sinister fallacy. In a 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” appearing in her book Under the Sign of Saturn, Sontag asks the real Leni Riefenstahl to step forward. Sontag details at great length Riefenstahl’s intimate and mutually beneficial personal relationship with top Nazi officials, up to and including Hitler, who called Riefenstahl “my perfect German woman.” Sontag relates how Riefenstahl accompanied the Wehrmacht, in uniform, as an official Nazi photographer during the invasion of Poland, and how the filmmaker benefited from the presence of elite Nazi security forces on the sets of her movies and helped plan the rallies she immortalized in film. Despite her claims to be primarily a director of fictional films, four of the six films that Riefenstahl directed were official, government-sponsored Nazi propaganda.

But Riefenstahl was a groundbreaking figure, a gifted female director, and surely we shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over the editing of the past if it will serve progressive goals.

Giving numerous examples of the modern-day enthusiasm for Riefenstahl (Jonas Mekas, writing in the Village Voice in 1974, praised Riefenstahl in the strongest terms and suggested that people could take what they wanted from her work), Sontag writes, “The purification of Leni Riefenstahl’s reputation of its Nazi dross has been gathering momentum for some time. . . . Part of the impetus behind Riefenstahl’s recent promotion to the status of a cultural monument surely owes to the fact that she is a woman.” That’s all that matters for some who celebrate Riefenstahl’s legacy. And while obviously Joe Biden isn’t planning to nominate a Nazi, similar attitudes guide the Democrats’ presumptive nominee today as the November election looms.

When it comes to Biden’s reputed shortlist, problems are obvious, even if none rise to the level of Riefenstahl. Whether the prospective VP is Kamala Harris (prosecutorial dishonesty and misconduct), Warren (false claims of Native-American ancestry), Klobuchar (a record on policing that doesn’t play well at the present juncture), or Keisha Bottoms (a disturbing history of receiving improper campaign donations and irregularities in the reporting thereof), each has problems. But they are, undeniably, women, and that consideration comes first in this woke moment of retro progressivism.

Michael Washburn is a New York–based journalist, fiction writer, and poet. He studied literature and history at Grinnell College and the University of Wisconsin.

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