Call them the odd couple of political debate: George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro. On the eve of the highly anticipated face-off between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, the first man and woman to tangle in a U.S. vice presidential debate visited TODAY for an exclusive interview, and discussed the debaters who will follow in their footsteps a quarter-century later.
The father of the current president says Biden faces some of the same challenges he did when he tangled with Ferraro in 1984. When TODAY’s Jamie Gangel asked if he was nervous that night, Bush freely admitted that he was.
“Everybody said, ‘You’re debating [at] the first time a woman has ever run for national office like this,’ Bush recalled. “ ‘You’ve got to be very careful, and you’ve got to be sure you don’t seem overbearing and rude.’ So I was thinking all of these terrible things.”
Bush told Gangel that Biden is “going to have his hands full. If he’s seen as a chauvinist or a bully or piling on, I think women would resent that. And so would men.”
Rivals turned friends
These days, the 41st president and former congresswoman Ferraro lock arms instead of horns; the former political adversaries are friends. Ferraro even brought some of her family members to Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the interview with TODAY took place.
As they watched clips from their 1984 debate, Bush, 84, and Ferraro, 73 smiled broadly. Clutching Bush’s arm, Ferraro said, “Oh God, we were both so young — and good-looking!”
And while the political tables have been turned for the Biden-Palin debate — a male Democrat is going up against a female Republican — Bush and Ferraro agreed interest in the event is heightened because of gender.
Ferraro remains firmly in the Democratic camp, but admitted she does have sentiment for Palin making a good showing. “I want her to do well. I think when a woman stands up there, it’s important for little girls to see someone there who can stand toe to toe with the guy who’s been in the Senate for 38 years and running for vice president.”
Ferraro also said she believes Palin’s hurdle in the debate is “much higher” than Biden’s. “She’s got to get to learn [all] these issues. And whether it’s domestic or foreign, all the issues that are facing this country are all being dealt with in Washington, in the House, the Senate and the White House.
“Her second hurdle,” Ferraro added, “is proving that she’s ready to be president of the United States.”
Recalling their own confrontation — when Bush ran for reelection as Ronald Reagan’s running mate, and Ferraro was on the Walter Mondale’s Democratic ticket — both Bush and Ferraro noted that the event is more remembered for the heat they generated than the light.
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At the 1984 debate, Bush tangled with Ferraro over the issue of terrorism, lecturing her: “Let me help you with the differences, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”
Ferraro shot back, “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Both Bush and Ferraro laugh about that exchange now, with Bush conceding that Ferraro got off “a good line.” But in retrospect, Ferraro said it clouded the important issues: “You know, I was very substantive, and nobody looked at that.”
Bush himself found himself in a bit of political hot water the day after the 1984 debate, when campaigning before a group of longshoreman. Not knowing he was being recorded, Bush told a supporter: “I think we did kick a little ass last night.”
In the interview on TODAY, Bush became visibly embarrassed discussing his slightly off-color comment, explaining that the off-the-cuff quote had been prompted by a supporter at the longshoreman rally. “A guy had a sign up there, `You kicked a little A last night,’ and he followed me around, every place I went, saying how great I’d done the night before,” Bush related. “I climbed into the car to leave, and there he is with his sign standing out there. And I said, ‘I think we did kick a little ass last night.’ I really regretted it.”
The former sparring partners agreed that the same kind of sound bites could come back to bite both Biden and Palin. “Everyone’s got to be concerned that they’re not too flip,” Bush advised.
While the two former adversaries were far more amiable on TODAY than they were under the spotlight back in 1984, they still had their differences — so mush so that Gangel suggested they might be ready to have a rematch.
Ferraro looked over at Bush and said, “Actually, you know, are you busy October 2?”
Bush let out a hearty laugh. “Yeah — very!”
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