03/12/2008 08:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Geraldine Ferraro Right?

Is Geraldine Ferraro Right?
Carlotta Cooper

For more than one generation of women Geraldine Ferraro was an inspiration in 1984. My mother, in her 40s, and I, still in college, both cheered her selection as Walter Mondale's running mate, and laughed at every feisty remark she made on the campaign trail. It seemed an enormous breakthrough back then that a woman could be in the vice presidential slot on a major party ticket.

Now, more than 20 years later, as Hillary Clinton pursues the Democratic nomination for president, Geraldine Ferraro is once again at the center of a campaign, this time for comments she made about Barack Obama, his qualifications to be president, and his race. Her comments have been so controversial to the Clinton campaign, for which she has been a fundraiser (she has held one fundraising event according to the newspaper which published her hot-button comments), and have so outraged Obama supporters, that Rep. Ferraro has now resigned from the campaign's Finance Committee as "Honorary New York Leadership Council Chair."

According to the original interview in the Torrance Daily Breeze with Jim Farber:

"I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama's campaign - to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against," she said. "For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It's been a very sexist media. Some just don't like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she continued. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

To further elaborate, Ferraro gave a follow-up interview with the Daily Breeze to Gene Maddaus (among other media statements and appearances):

Ferraro said she was simply stating an obvious truth, as seen in exit polls that show Obama taking as much as 80 percent of the black vote in the Democratic primaries.

"In all honesty, do you think that if he were a white male, there would be a reason for the black community to get excited for a historic first?" Ferraro said. "Am I pointing out something that doesn't exist?"

Ferraro further said that she herself would not have been the vice presidential nominee in 1984 if she had been a man.

What can you do with remarks such as these? Rep. Ferraro is staunchly standing by her remarks, even after resigning from her volunteer role in the Clinton campaign. Senator Clinton has said she did not agree with Rep. Ferraro's remarks and said it was regrettable that either her supporters or Senator Obama's made remarks that veered into the personal. She also said she preferred to stick to the issues. All in all, a mild response. Too mild to suit Senator Obama and his supporters.

So, what did Geraldine Ferraro mean when she said that if Obama were a white man he wouldn't be in "this position"? How is he "lucky" to be who he is? And, does Senator Obama have reason to be offended? Or, was Rep. Ferraro really trying to say something positive, as she told Good Morning America?

According to those most offended by Rep. Ferraro's remarks, her comments were racist. What she said was tantamount to saying that the only reason African-Americans would vote for Senator Obama is because he's black. Obama supporters seem to read her comments as saying that being black is Senator Obama's biggest asset. In return, they quite rightly point out that Senator Obama has done exceptionally well in areas with well-educated white voters, more liberal Democratic party members, and even with Independents -- not just with the black vote. He's also seemingly cornered the market on the Youth vote.

Indeed, without understanding the context of Rep. Ferraro's remarks, it might be possible to be offended. However, if the people in the Obama campaign are politically astute at all, one would suppose them capable of understanding context. Even as a Clinton supporter, Rep. Ferraro was giving an interview to discuss an upcoming lecture to "offer her views on the state of the nation and the race for the White House." She's known as an outspoken advocate for women's issues. It's little wonder that these issues should come up in her interview in advance of the lecture, or that she should think in terms of historic firsts considering her own role as a trailblazer in Democratic politics. Or, in fact, that she would think of comparing her situation in 1984 to that of Senator Clinton or Senator Obama today.

Personally, I think Senator Obama might be in the same position today whether he were black or white. He has a John Kennedy-Abe Lincoln quality about him, a charisma and oratorical style that make him an excellent candidate. He has the education and the background to run for president. His campaign seems to have been run effectively and efficiently. Whether I agree with his positions or think he would make the best president is another matter, but I think he is undoubtedly a highly successful candidate. No doubt Geraldine Ferraro does, too. She said he has the kind of campaign it would be hard for anyone to run against. She also says that the black community has enthusiastically rallied around Senator Obama, not just for these obvious talents and abilities, but because they are excited by the prospect of a successful black Democratic nominee for president. And she cites exit polling that shows Obama taking as much as 80 percent of the black vote in some primaries.

I ask you: can you deny that what she says is true? Is it racist for her to point our that, in addition to his other great attributes, he has the support of the black community? I'm not saying that he is only supported because he is an African-American candidate. But he is a very well-qualified candidate who happens to be African-American and there are many in the black community who are excited about his campaign.

I do not agree with Rep. Ferraro when she says that Senator Obama wouldn't be where he is today if he were white IF by that she means that he couldn't have become a successful candidate. However, if she means that he might not enjoy as much support from the black community if he were white, then, yes, I agree, that is probably true.

Is he "lucky" in the sense that he has the attributes of being young, good-looking, intelligent, well-educated, and a gifted speaker? Yes. When you add to those qualities the fact that he has a special appeal to many in the black community, I don't think it's difficult to see why Rep. Ferraro called him "lucky."

For anyone to suggest that the Clinton campaign somehow stoked this fire and put Rep. Ferraro up to making these controversial comments, such an idea qualifies as Byzantine without brains. There was nothing to be gained from such a gambit and much to be lost. Why would the Clinton campaign want to risk alienating black voters when it needs them? Does anyone think they wake up in the morning and say, "Today we should try to lose some votes!" Does anyone think they need to call attention to the fact that Senator Obama is black? That's about as necessary as pointing out that Senator Clinton is female. In general, things that lead to supporters resigning are not good, so this was probably not something that was planned, for you conspiracy theorists out there.

I do not think that people should vote for someone because of their skin color. I do not think that people should vote for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. I think people should vote for the person they believe is best qualified to be president regardless of these things. But this campaign has undeniably elicited charged emotions on all sides when it comes to gender and race. I do think that too much has been made of Rep. Ferraro's remarks and that some people have either intentionally misunderstood them for their own purposes -- or there are some people who need to drink a lot less caffeine on the campaign trail.