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Pat Schroeder pitches in

'Do you remember,' I said to an old friend of mine, 'Geraldine Ferraro?' 'Ah,' he said with a sigh, 'I'm sorry, she was long before my time but I've heard one or two recordings. Lovely voice and I understand she was practically unique in her time in being an opera star who was at once beautiful and not overweight.'

After a startled moment at this utterly unexpected reply, 'That she was.' I said, 'In fact, I remember her fondly as the star of a half-dozen movies. Silent films of course. She quit years before sound came in.' 'Why,' he asked, 'would anyone hire an opera star for a silent movie?' Good question.

Why would anyone fetch Sarah Bernhardt, famous for a voice that was sometimes silvery and sometimes golden, to play Queen Elizabeth in a silent movie? The early movie moguls assumed people would come to watch her wave her arms around and batter her eyelids, which they did. It was Sam Goldwyn who decided that Geraldine Farrar was beautiful enough to be a silent movie star and maybe the reputation of her splendid voice would somehow echo through her silent mouthing. Don't ask me how.

You'll have gathered that my friend was an opera buff and I'd let him out on a loose line. Long enough. Now, I gave him the hook. 'However,' I said, 'I didn't ask you if you remembered Geraldine Farrar, I said Geraldine Ferraro!' 'Oh, her!' he said, 'Yes, barely.'

I ought to throw in that Geraldine Farrar, the once very famous opera star, was born in 1882 and died in 1967, whereas Geraldine Ferraro was born in 1935 and so is only 52. Last Wednesday, to be exact. And only three years ago, she ran on the Democratic ticket as Walter Mondale's vice president – the first woman ever to be nominated for president or vice president. Somebody once said, 'No Americans are so quickly forgotten as failed vice-presidential candidates.' Mrs Ferraro proves it. For one heady summer, her face was on every magazine cover. The television cameras followed her like magnets. The crowds at Democratic rallies shouted themselves hoarse and the cheering women could barely see her through a blur of tears. All the best, and the worst, commentators wrote reams about the historic breakthrough. Never again, it was written, would the parties fail to consider putting a woman on the ticket.

Well, three years later, there are at least seven men who are declared runners for 1988 as Democrats – there may be eight or nine before this talk is over – and there are five or six Republican men. So far, nobody has demanded that they should promise to run with a woman vice president. From time to time, a columnist notices that India had a woman prime minister, that the Philippines is led by a woman, that Britain has a woman as, it begins to seem, a fixture, as a prime minister.

Well, suddenly, there has come charging through this bland regiment of males a woman who has only to open her mouth for five minutes to leave the impression of a human being more zesty, gutsy, funny, more of a character than any of the – how many is it? – 14, 15 running hopefuls. And she's not running for vice president. You don't run for vice president, you get picked as the running mate of the man who's just been nominated by his party convention.

So, she's running for president. At least, she's charging around the states looking for money, enough money – which is a lot – to warrant her getting matching federal funds, so she can be a declared candidate. A lot of us, Democrats, Republicans, independents, whatever, are hoping she'll make it, if only for the selfish pleasure of hearing someone slam away at her opponents with wit and force and relish. Since she's a Democrat, her bullseye target is of course President Reagan. She was the one who coined the phrase, printed the label that will not fade, she called him 'the Teflon President' to whom nothing nasty sticks.

Patricia, always known as Pat, Schroeder is the lady's name and she's no maverick feminist leaping recklessly into the political stockyards, she is now in her eighth term in the House, which means she's been a congresswoman for close on 16 years. She was 31 when she was first elected and is therefore now 47. Born in Portland, Oregon, graduated from the University of Minnesota, then law degree at Harvard – naturally, like about two-thirds of the Congress, she's a lawyer – moved her home to Denver, Colorado and so is always elected from a Colorado district. There are no absentee or non-resident members of the House or Senate. In the American system you represent the place you live.

She's married, has two children. She's on several committees of Congress, including armed services, civil rights, child and family, judiciary. She looks like a cross between Barbara Stanwyck and Carol Lombard, if you can reach back so far, and if they'd written their own lines, that's what she sounds like.

Unlike the seven, eight, nine, male Democrats whose speeches and voices are almost interchangeable and who monotonously tick off the issues on the fingers of one hand, Pat Schroeder is not, at the moment, doing much finger-ticking. She launches into the present administration with all the groaning exasperation of a mother who's come home early from a party and finds the house in an uproar, the children tossing pies and cushions at each other, the dishes unwashed, the telephone disconnected, the dog chewing up the income tax returns.

'All right,' she began, the other week, 'we've had "I love this" and "I love that" bumper stickers and rainbows and unicorns and "It's morning in America", but now let's face it, we've had our coffee and it's time for a rendezvous with reality.' And, in a side swipe at her dull, parroting fellow Democrats and their grinding campaigns, she says, 'There may not be enough caffeine in America to keep the country awake during the coming presidential campaign.'

She doesn't merely admit the droning failure of the Mondale-Ferraro campaign last time, she says, 'We, Democrats, have raised losing the presidency to an art form' and she proposes to stop it. She calls herself a fiscally conservative liberal. Everybody, today, on both sides, is a fiscal conservative. Looking and shuddering at that $140 billion deficit, they'd better be!

But it's something to come out these days and proclaim yourself a liberal. The liberal tradition of the Democrats, which was loudly and proudly maintained from 1932 to about 1972, has been so thoroughly savaged, so bruised by the conservative tidal wave of the past 15 years that it's almost an act of audacity and, perhaps, of political suicide for any presidential candidate to come out and say, 'Yes, I am a liberal'.

The Republicans have been so successful, especially during the Reagan years, in representing the liberals as being not so much as it used to be said 'soft' on Communism, as being touchingly hoodwinked by Mr Gorbachev's good intentions so as to sell America's security down the river – with the best intentions, of course. And, with more credibility, the Republicans have dinned into the people that the so-called Reagan deficit is not Reagan's doing, that each successive national budget, however small, however huge, is ultimately the product of the House of Representatives, where the Democrats have a large majority.

And it's true that all presidents can only propose a budget. The House decides, so it's become conventional rhetoric for the Republican presidential candidates to point to the former speaker of the House, Mr Tip O'Neill, the Democrats' chieftain in the House, as the villain of the soaring budgets. Since Mr O'Neill has retired, he's indisposed to get back into the fray.

The big, never-ending issue about the budget is, how much is to go for defence and how much for social services? Mrs Schroeder has a blockbuster of a counter charge. 'We spend,' she says, '$180 billion to defend our allies. Reduce that amount drastically and the deficit would come tumbling down.' Of course this would mean putting it up to the allies to spend a great deal more defending themselves, which would not make Mrs Schroeder popular with European liberals. But then, she's not running in Europe.

Adlai Stevenson once came back from making a speech or two in England. He was rapturously received and when he got home and began to take his knocks during his campaign, he sighed, 'I always seem to run on the wrong continent'.

Well, if Pat Schroeder gets the money, gets matching federal funds, launches her campaign and emerges as the stand-out her style seems to guarantee, there is one big burden she's going to have to throw off if she's to become a likely choice for the Democrats. Ironically, weirdly, that burden could carry the label, 'the women's movement'.

She remembers well that Geraldine Ferraro crashed with it. By too many voters, Ferraro was seen as the women's lib candidate, as an aggressive feminist. She was grateful for their help, of course, but it was an albatross. She said, 'Fine! Now we've jumped the hurdle of not having a woman running for the highest office, let's get on with it on equal terms.' But in the result, more women voted for Reagan.

Pat Schroeder is all too aware of the hazards not of running as a woman – 'Do I have a choice?' she says – but of being a woman running for president. While she talks as if it's taken for granted that women are equal citizens and she's not going to go on about the feminists' issues as feminist issues, she knows already how hard it is to campaign with the aggressiveness of a man – take an insult, give an insult. She knows that this style is just as unattractive to many women as to many men. This is her problem and, as usual, she, herself, defines it best.

For a woman running a political campaign, she says the hardest thing is to discover a day-to-day style, a manner of attack which is forceful but not pushy, reasonable but not subdued. Hard for a woman, she says, to find a style between a harridan and a bubblehead.

For our own entertainment, let's hope she finds it.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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