Tag Archives: Anne Wexler

Geraldine Ferraro And Anne Wexler Kicked Ass

Most obituaries of Geraldine Ferraro this weekend recounted a key moment in her political career:  her vice presidential debate against George H.W. Bush.

Writing on TheAtlantic.com blog, Ben W. Heineman Jr. recalls the question on everyone’s mind:

How would she, a three-term member of Congress, stand up against the man who had been ambassador to China and the U.N, headed the CIA, and for the previous four years served as vice president of the United States?

The only one not worried was the Democratic vice presidential candidate herself.  She soon impressed her boss — Walter Mondale — and his staff with her preparation work.

Anne Wexler

Part of that preparation was guided by Anne Wexler.  Two decades earlier she’d been a member of Westport’s Zoning Board of Appeals.  But she was galvanized by Vietnam, and quickly became a powerful figure in national politics.

In 1972 she was a driving force in changing rules that opened the Democratic party to its current primary system.  Later she became a senior advisor to President Carter.

By 1984 she was a highly respected political consultant.  That’s when the Mondale campaign asked her to help Ferraro get ready for the vice presidential debate:  a crucial test on the national stage.

According to Heineman, “Ferraro’s self-confidence was well-founded. With poise, humor and substance, she went toe-to-toe with the vice president for 90 minutes.”

Heineman adds:

Afterwards, instant polls showed the debate a draw, and that was the view of many other commentators.  But a draw for a three-term congresswoman against someone with Bush’s vaunted resume…..

The most famous line of the debate, of course, was Geraldine Ferraro’s.  The vice president began an answer by saying:  “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”

To which the first woman national candidate in American history replied: “Let me first of all say that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”  This was the debate clip shown the day after — and to this day.

After  the debate was over, Vice President Bush remarked into a still open mic that he had “kicked a little ass.”  Given the expectations before the debate, I felt, along with so many others, that it was actually the other way round.

And it was another powerful woman — Westport’s Anne Wexler — who helped deliver that kick.

George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro before their vice presidential debate. (Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar)

The Life Anne Wexler Lived

Anne Wexler, in 1980. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Last August, “06880” honored the life of Anne Wexler.  In the 1960s, the Westport housewife moved from the Zoning Board of Appeals to bigger things:  first the statewide Gene McCarthy presidential campaign, then national politics.  Wexler helped rewrite the Democrats’ delegate selection process, leading directly to the 1972 nomination of George McGovern.

Wexler next became a Jimmy Carter confidante.  After leaving the White House, she turned into a Washington lobbyist.

Last week, in its annual “The Lives They Lived” look at important and/or overlooked people who died during the year, the New York Times Magazine profiled Anne Wexler.  Writer Matt Bai focused on her lobbying days.  His even-handed look begins:

At the dawn of the 1960s, Anne Wexler was living an idyllic life, in a “Mad Men” sort of way.  The daughter of a prominent Manhattan architect, she had graduated from Skidmore, married an ophthalmologist and given birth to two sons.  She kept a neat house in Westport and lunched with the ladies.  “I had all the Jewish princess stuff” is how she later described it.

But the news from places like Montgomery and Saigon kept washing up like a wave on her manicured front lawn.  More than anything else, it was the escalation of the war she detested that pulled her into politics, first as the manager of local campaigns and then as a key organizer of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 crusade.  She wasn’t a feminist in the confrontational sense — Betty Friedan was a friend, never a mentor — but Wexler soon became a role model for younger women who were bent on remaking a male-dominated Democratic Party.  Older and more worldly than they were, Wexler seemed instinctively to know how the game was played.

Bai spends the bulk of his piece discussing Wexler’s lobbying career.  He writes:

Up to that point, the lobbying business was primarily divided by partisan boundaries; Democratic firms had access to Democratic lawmakers and Republicans to Republicans, which meant that a lobbyist’s business relied on the fortunes of his party.  Putting aside the ideological convictions that transformed her life, Wexler would team up with Nancy Clark Reynolds, a close friend of Reagan’s, to create a firm that not only would be led by women — “We’re going to be underestimated, and it’ll work every time,” Wexler told her new partner — but that could also reach any level of government, no matter who was in charge.

As the lobbying business grew into a $3 billion industry, Wexler’s name became synonymous with a new generation of elite “superlobbyists,” lawyers and political operatives whose influence on Capitol Hill made them far wealthier than many of the politicians they manipulated.

Bai notes that lobbying was disliked by the liberals who had long loved Wexler:

Wexler always rejected the idea that she had betrayed the principles of her activist heyday.  Rather, she portrayed her lobbying work as an extension of the public-service ideal, even as her firm’s client list expanded to include the likes of Anheuser-Busch, General Motors and Aetna.  “Government officials are not comfortable making these complicated decisions by themselves,” Wexler explained to a Time reporter in 1986.

It had the hollow ring of rationalization.  Wexler sold the company to Hill & Knowlton, the public-relations giant, in 1990 but continued to run it.  Ultimately, the woman who once led the fight for Gene McCarthy happily added a new partner’s name to the door: Bob Walker, the former Republican congressman and one of Newt Gingrich’s chief acolytes.

When Wexler died, Bai says, her passing was not universally mourned:

Wexler’s death, after a return of cancer she first beat back more than 20 years earlier, was met with tributes from many of the capital’s leading liberals — and with scorn from a few.  “What might Anne Wexler have accomplished for causes she really believed in,” the writer Michael Kinsley asked in a column in The Washington Post, “if she hadn’t spent the last three decades of her life taking on any cause that walked in the door with a checkbook in hand?”

Fair or not, Kinsley’s critique neglected the larger context. Wexler’s career was, in fact, the story of a generation.  The young idealists of both the McGovernite left and the Goldwater right had arrived in Washington vowing to reform it, but by the time Anne Wexler died, they had become, instead, their own kind of establishment — a ruling class of consultants and lobbyists and celebrity pundits every bit as immovable as the machine bosses and Brahmin lawyers of another era.  As Wexler herself might have pointed out, she didn’t do anything her male contemporaries hadn’t done.  She was simply better at it.

We are always told not to speak ill of the dead.  Yet politicians have always been different.  Anne Wexler — the peace advocate — was definitely a politician.

Remembering Anne Wexler

Anne Wexler

Anne Wexler

Anne Wexler died this morning, following a long battle with cancer.

Her obituary — sure to run tomorrow in the New York Times and Washington Post — will probably quote Washingtonian Magazine, which called the co-founder of Wexler & Walker one of the capital’s “10 most powerful lobbyists (and) easily the most influential female lobbyist in a world still dominated by men.”

It will talk about her tireless work in Democratic politics, including her participation on the McGovern Commission that revolutionized the nominating process — leading directly to the presidencies of unknown governors like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

It will mention that she was Jimmy Carter’s chief deputy in charge of building support for White House programs and policies, and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce.

Her obituary will probably not talk about her Westport years.  But they were key ones, crucial in her transformation from housewife into political powerhouse.

In the mid-1960s Wexler was a member of our Zoning Board of Appeals.  She worked for President Johnson’s election in 1964 but — disillusioned with his handling of Vietnam — went on to manage the congressional campaign of peace candidate John Fitzgerald.

By 1968 she was vice chairman of Connecticut’s Eugene McCarthy for President Committee.  Only 13 states scheduled primaries that year.  Wexler and a few others researched election laws, then figured out how to force the 1st primary in Connecticut history.  It was too late to include all 169 towns, but they won 25 percent of the delegates to the June convention in Hartford.  Wexler was 1 of them.

That summer, she helped research the delegate selection process in the other 49 states.  Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa chaired a commission to examine changes in the nominating process.  At the convention — the famous Chicago bloodbath — the Hughes report was voted down.

Wexler — a member of the national Rules Committee — reintroduced it as a minority report.  Late at night, in the midst of chaos, it passed.  The report called for a national commission to recommend ways of providing greater public participation in the selection of candidates.

George McGovern was appointed chairman.  Wexler was named to the group too.  The McGovern commission held hearings around the country.  One result was that — with solid knowledge of the new nominating process — McGovern himself was nominated for president in 1972.

Another result was that the Democrats increased the role of caucuses and primaries, and mandated quotes for proportional representation by blacks, women and youth delegates.  The role of party officials and insiders was considerably reduced.  The rest is history.

Wexler eventually moved from party politics to lobbying.  She left Westport behind (along with her husband — after their divorce, she married senatorial candidate and former priest Joe Duffey).

But Westport helped make Anne Wexler who she was.  As local as it sounds, Westport’s Zoning Board of Appeals launched the political career of one of the most powerful women in Washington.