Reassessing Ferraro's candidacy

THE widely expressed wisdom that Geraldine Ferraro opened doors to women and the presidency is being reevaluated. Election polls showed Ms. Ferraro didn't help the ticket and, in many areas, harmed it. Her difficulty in trying to explain her financial situation slowed the Mondale-Ferraro campaign before it could get up a full head of steam. A fair assessment of the Ferraro candidacy would seem to be:

1. The first woman vice-presidential candidate was bound to run up against a lot of unyielding prejudice.

2. Ferraro's failure to disclose additional financial information about her family on House ethics forms does bear on the public's evaluation of her. But future political slatemakers aren't likely to decide that women are poor risks for the highest office in the land.

Ms. Ferraro did open a door that will never shut again. But Walter Mondale could have picked another woman who would have opened the same door, without bringing as many problems as Ferraro and her husband did.

Think of the plight of Mr. Mondale now if he had become president. John Zaccaro, Ferraro's husband, pleaded guilty this month to scheming to defraud a mortgage broker and a securities firm in a real estate transaction. Earlier questions were raised about the way Zaccaro had managed the trust funds of an elderly widow.

Ferraro shouldn't be tarred by any misdeeds of her husband -- if she didn't know about them. But the political realities are that this Zaccaro admission of guilt would have cast a shadow on a Vice-President Ferraro.

One of the first requirements of a vice-president is that he or she not cause the president any problems. But Ferraro and her husband would have become a political embarrassment and hindrance to a President Mondale.

All this brings us to this obvious conclusion: The positive impact of Ferraro's being selected for the No. 2 slot cannot be expunged. Her opportunity was precedent setting. She lifted the hearts and hopes of women all over the United States.

But the really important lesson is that presidential candidates of the future must be more careful in selecting their running mates. The Mondale camp did not check out Ms. Ferraro thoroughly enough. An inquiry that would have discovered that questions were being raised about both Ferraro and her husband might have taken considerably more time. But presidential candidates of the future must begin to start examining possible running mates well before they get to the convention.

The news media had certainly heard hints of Ferraro's problem. Just learning this much might have caused Mondale to look elsewhere for a running mate, perhaps to some other women.

Actually, there is much to be said for both presidential and vice-presidential candidates coming from the ranks of governors, senators, members of the Cabinet, inasmuch as these officials have been scrutinized by critics, opponents, and the press.

Also, the idea of presidential candidates picking their running mates when they announce for the presidency is not a bad one. This would open both candidates to an intensive public examination of credentials, background, and character that could well bring out embarrassing or even disqualifying facts about either well before the nominating convention.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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