When it was all over in the wee hours this morning, when the landslide had swept away the last hurrahs in the hotel ballroom, when the only sound was the tinkle of campaign balloons drifting among the chandelier teardrops, one big question remained unanswered:
What now for Geraldine A. Ferraro?
A placard at a Decatur, Ill., high school rally last week summarized the one indisputable legacy of her losing bid for the vice-presidency: "Win or Lose, Ferraro Has Won a Place in History."
Yet history may wait to judge Ferraro -- who is certain to be canonized by feminists -- as the first woman nominated by a major party to national office. Her fate is not likely to be as tidy as a simple tally of electoral votes.
Foremost among the factors is the Manhattan grand jury that is now investigating two real estate deals involving her husband, John A. Zaccaro. Depending on the disposition of the case and the speed with which it is resolved, the inquiry could permanently mar Ferraro's value as a politician emeritus in the Democratic Party and her political ambitions in New York.
Ferraro is known to toy with the notion of running in 1986 for the seat now held by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who won his first term in 1980 in a three-way race against Jacob K. Javits and then-Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman.
"I'm not sorry the campaign is over," Ferraro said in a final news conference today before beginning a 10-day vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "The only thing I'm going to have to get used to is paying tolls over the Triborough Bridge again . . . . Right now, I have two months to clear up my congressional work . . . . Then I'm going to sift through some offers both legal and literary that have come in."
When asked how she would adjust to life without the adoring crowds, Ferraro quipped, "My children have been informed what they're supposed to do, that when I come down to breakfast it's 'Ger-ry! Ger-ry!'
"How do I want my candidacy remembered? As truly the first step in opening doors for women in national politics."
After predicting that a silent army of women would arise to support her and Mondale on Election Day, Ferraro in her post-mortem today was left with the consolation that "there was a gender gap," because 8 percent more women than men voted Democratic.
But campaign manager John Sasso saw a more enduring impact in the fact that "women will shoot higher because of her. A lot of women say, 'Well, I'll start by running for the school board.' That's fine, that's important. But now, some will think, 'I'll run for Congress or I'll run for national office.' "
It has been 17 weeks since this only daughter of an Italian immigrant was selected as Walter F. Mondale's running mate. She has traveled, in 118 days, from being an obscure, three-term congresswoman with a knack for climbing the House leadership trellis, to perhaps the best-known woman in America.
Throughout the odyssey, the woman code-named Duster by the Secret Service remained the American Everywoman, notwithstanding a combined net worth with her husband of nearly $4 million.
This week, campaign aides confirmed that Ferraro occasionally has slipped out the rear door of her Queens house, disguised in a scarf and oversized sunglasses. With bodyguards trailing at a discrete distance, she would wander through the aisles of her favorite supermarket, trying to retain some scrap of the normalcy otherwise forfeited to national politics.
For those in the media who have lived at her elbow for the three months since her first solo campaign swing in mid-August, Ferraro showed steady growth as a candidate.
Initially wary of big crowds and a ragged stump-speaker, she grew to love the tens of thousands who came to hear what eventually became well-cadenced, witty denunciations of Republican America. Even the raspy Queens accent, as much a trademark as her frosted-flip hair style, came to seem more asset than liability.
On certain magic occasions, the symbol of her candidacy brought a rapt fervor to the crowds, which some veteran political observers likened to such charismatics as Robert F. Kennedy during his short presidential run in 1968.
She brought out the jumpers, those on the fringe of crowds who were so eager to see her that they would bound up and down for a glimpse. It was a kind of enfranchising, a widening of the republic, as women who had long felt excluded from the club suddenly were granted access.
Her worst mistake was her first, and it came in the first hour of her maiden voyage as Mondale's running mate. In a news conference at Washington's National Airport before flying to California on Aug. 12, she retracted an earlier promise to release her husband's tax forms. The subsequent uproar preoccupied the campaign for most of the rest of the month.
In addition to her gender, Ferraro's candidacy was notable for other reasons. She was, for example, the first Italian-American to run for national office. Combined with Zaccaro's legal problems, that heritage has ignited persistent -- and thus far unproven -- suspicions of organized-crime connections.
Press secretary Francis O'Brien saw that as "potentially the most damaging aspect of this campaign," as early as mid-August, "because of the innuendo and prejudice about Italian-Americans in this country."
Secondly, Ferraro became a lightning rod for one of the biggest social issues in campaign '84 -- religion and politics. A devout Roman Catholic, she nevertheless provoked the public ire of the church hierarchy by refusing to endorse an absolute prohibition on abortion.
"When she stood her ground when the bishops came at her, it was an enormous contribution," campaign manager John Sasso said.
Sasso summed up Ferraro this way: "Think about it. One hundred days ago, virtually no one knew who she was. It's not easy to get 200-million people to know you in 100 days. Ernest Hemingway said courage is grace under pressure. I think that characterizes her."