GERALDINE FERRARO'S account of her nomination and campaign as candidate for the vice presidency of the United States is what used to be called a century ago a cautionary tale. The rapturous launch of the first ever woman vice-presidential candidate turned within days into a nightmare of allegations, insinuations and very old skeletons pulled out of the family cupboard. Had the Zaccaro family not been bound together by unusually strong and resilient mutual loyalties, it might not have survived the pounding it went through.

Why did the dream turn into a nightmare? After all, Mrs. Ferraro's candidacy elicited passionate support from the organized women's groups which are now a powerful factor in American politics. Everywhere she went in the three-month campaign, thousands turned out to greet her, lifting up babies to be kissed, indeed one could almost use the word "blessed"; holding out hands in an effort to touch her; screaming "Gerr-Eee!" whenever they caught a glimpse. Her account of those campaign rallies describes politics as revivalist religion and as theater. As she herself says, they were not the forums for any serious speeches.

Apart from the Ferraro candidacy, the 1984 presidential campaign was dull. The polls, from beginning to end, showed the incumbent president had a commanding lead. The challenger, Walter Mondale, for all his solid virtues, came across as pedantic and heavy. The vice president, George Bush, has never at any stage in his political career caught the public imagination. He is not that kind of politician. So Mrs. Ferraro was bound to be the center of attention: the first woman and the first Italian-American to aspire to such high office.

She was clearly not prepared for wat happened: an intensity of investigative journalism, much of it vicious, some of it inaccurate, that probed every corner of her life, and of her family's too. The Mondale staff's preliminary examination of potential running mates for their candidate had satisfied them that Geraldine Ferraro had a good marriage, well-behaved children, an excellent record as a hardworking congresswoman, a capacity to learn, and charm on the platform. They also knew that she had borrowed money from her family to meet her 1978 campaign expenses, but had duly repaid it. They did not guess that this one chink in her armor would be forced open to reveal her husband's business dealings and all the family's finances, which in turn led to a host of rumors, charges and even legal action.

Mrs. Ferraro claims in her book that a number of genuine mistakes were made by the family's legal advisers and accountants, and that they were cleared up by her in a marathon press confeence for the purpose of exploring her financial position early in the campaign. She was to learn, however, that explanation did not stop investigation; it fed it.

American politicians are subjected to a remorseless process of personal investigation which has destroyed some and jeopardized others. It has driven many more out of politics altogether. Any outside observer of the American political scene is struck by the disappearance from it of men and women of outstanding talent who, having been defeated once, make no attempt to return. The pressures of the media on their families and on themselves are often cited as the reason. Indeed, Mrs. Ferraro's description of the agony of combining relentless campaign demands with the strains of coping with newspaper scandal stories would stop any sensible person from ever entering high politics.

How much of it was because the candidate was a woman? The savagery of the pro-lifers, including certain members of the Catholic hierarchy, was almost certainly harpened by the gender of their victim. In my own campaigning, I have encountered something similar, a threat that unless I accepted any and every amendment to existing legislation permitting abortion in certain circumstances, the anti-abortion organizations would campaign against me. The irony is that I am pro-life and have voted against abortion laws. I was luckier than Mrs. Ferraro in my archbishop, however. Mine, with great courage, refused to allow the churches in his diocese to be used for campaigning against me -- or any of the other candidates.

American politics is a much tougher scene for women than British politics for two reasons: the public campaigning for the election of an individual rather than a party demanded by the presidential system, and the heightened awareness of the politics of gender. Mrs. Ferraro's book is understandably over-excited about the significance of her candidacy for women. After all, the vice presidency is at best a subsidiary role. By the time of her campaign, the world's largest, and the world's oldest, parliamentary democracies had both had women prime ministers, and furthermore, women of whom no one could say they lacked the courage to push the button, though they might lack the judgment not to do so. Mrs. Gandhi and Mrs. Thatcher qualify as warrior women, war leaders of marked toughness and flair.

But the parliamentary system makes it easier for a women to emerge. She is chosen by her colleagues, fellow members of parliament and party leaders who have seen her and heard her over many years. Gender matters, of course; there was speculation about Mrs. Thatcher's capacity to deal with crises and to command a cabinet, both long since established indeed to the point of the opposite criticism, that she is a leader who brooks neither disagreement nor dissent. But gender is not so central. Are American women's organizations wise to make so much of the gender of a candidate? It is bound to redouble the media's unwelcome attentions.

The first women vice president is going to have to be very tough, hopefully made of Teflon. Heaven help the first women president. She will need it.