07/11/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Opening Doors: Mondale, Ferraro and the Legacy of July 12

Thirty years ago on July 12 Walter Mondale did what had never been done before -- he put someone other than a white male on a major party presidential ticket. The historic selection of Representative Geraldine Ferraro on that day culminated a process whereby Mondale transparently considered able members of groups historically excluded from leadership roles. In so doing, Mondale took an important step towards opening up leadership positions to qualified Americans regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity.

Prior to 1984, only whites and, with one exception (Anne Armstrong, 1976), males had been seriously considered for the vice presidency. In constructing his vice-presidential search, Mondale considered conventional choices, but he also included a number of able women, black, Hispanic, and Jewish office-holders -- Ferraro, San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein, Kentucky Governor Martha Collins, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Pittsburgh Mayor Wilson Goode, and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Whereas Gerald Ford's consideration of Armstrong had been largely invisible, Mondale conducted publicized meetings with most under consideration and with all of those from traditionally excluded groups.

Many criticized Mondale's approach. Ferraro and most of the other minorities he considered did not come from traditional vice-presidential feeder positions -- senator, governor, high executive branch official -- and some thought the public process made Mondale appear to be pandering to various Democratic interest groups.

Yet there was value in the process. It made a statement that it was time, actually long past time, America opened leadership positions to qualified people other than white males. Mondale did not have the luxury of finding such candidates in traditional feeder positions. The newly elected Collins was the only Democratic woman governor, there were no Democratic women or black senators, and no women or black former Cabinet members who were plausible vice-presidential picks. Mondale recognized that applying standard criteria to groups unfairly excluded from service would perpetuate the pattern of exclusion.

And he recognized that those he considered were impressive. Feinstein currently is in her fourth term as a senator from America's largest state, a state Bradley narrowly missed becoming governor of. Cisneros became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And Ferraro, who had been emerging as a leader in the party, ran a credible vice-presidential campaign.

To be sure, political considerations affected Mondale's choice. He was facing a difficult race against President Ronald Reagan and he needed to remake the electoral landscape. Yet Mondale's selection of Ferraro on July 12 was quite different from Senator John McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin a quarter century later. Whereas Mondale had made a point of publicly considering persons from excluded groups, McCain's short-list consisted of white males until the 11th hour when he concluded that he needed a woman running mate to have a chance to win. Only then was Palin belatedly added to his short list. Whereas Ferraro was an able and serious public official, Palin has often made Spiro Agnew seem relatively thoughtful.

And whereas McCain's selection was dictated entirely by political expediency, Mondale acted consistently with the commitment to opening doors which was a hallmark of his public service. Choosing a woman might conceivably have reshaped the electoral map but choosing a black or Hispanic in 1984 would not have. What was significant about Mondale's search was not just the historic choice of Ferraro but the visible consideration of candidates from a range of traditionally excluded demographic groups.

No presidential candidate followed Mondale's example. Colin Powell might have been selected had he been willing and Al Gore broke a religion barrier when he chose Senator Joe Lieberman in 2000 but prior to 2008 less than a handful of women or racial or ethnic minority group members even made short lists, and mostly for show.

But 2008 demonstrated America is changing. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton ran a virtually even race for the Democratic presidential nomination and Palin was the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Obama was elected and re-elected four years later.

Women, and to a lesser extent, African-Americans have begun to move into positions of leadership in political life. From 1997 to 2013, four consecutive Secretaries of State were either women, African-American, or both. Three women now serve on the Supreme Court (compared to just Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 1984). Twenty women currently serve in the United States Senate (compared to two Republican women in 1984) and 79 in the House of Representatives (22 in 1984). There are five women governors, down from nine a few years ago, but a number that is likely to grow this year. Women have held every Cabinet position except Secretary of Treasury, Defense and Veterans Affairs. Clinton is a leading presidential candidate, and if Vice President Joe Biden wins the nomination many others will be mentioned as his running mate. Some Republican women will probably be considered for the GOP ticket.

African-Americans and Hispanics have made less progress. There is one African American governor (Deval Patrick), two senators (Cory Booker and Tim Scott), 44 members of the House of Representatives (22 in 1984) and three in the Cabinet (although an African-American has held every Cabinet position except Treasury, Defense, Interior). There are three Hispanic senators, two Hispanic governors and about 30 Hispanic members of the House.

These numbers show progress during the last 30 years in opening leadership positions to minorities but also suggest that formidable barriers remain. Recent Supreme Court decisions limiting affirmative action and voting rights will impede the march towards political equality as will efforts afoot in many states to make voting more difficult.

The effort to open doors is not simply a matter of aesthetics, as some have suggested. It rather reflects a commitment to equality and to the idea that the American dream is not simply the province of white males, that as Ferraro said, "America is a land where dreams can come true for all of us." And it recognizes that all benefit when national leaders come from America's full talent pool.

That was a big part of the commitment behind Mondale's selection of Ferraro July 12, 30 years ago, and the process that preceded it. That should be a commitment going forward.