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Bella Abzug: In Hard Times, Look to the Legacy of the Brilliant Feisty Bella, Not the Poser Sarah Palin

A recent book reminds us of one of the most inspirational figures in U.S. political history -- what a contrast Abzug is to media darling Sarah Palin.
 
 
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In this political moment when Sarah Palin is the new conservative female leader archetype, the image and record of Bella Abzug stands out in profound contrast. Abzug was a one of a kind -- a brilliant, charismatic, caring, impossible, incorrigible, relentless leader, who made an indelible mark in politics in her colorful career as a lawyer, Congresswoman, and leader of myriad causes.

As described in the introduction to the marvelous Bella Abzug: Oral History ( FSG), edited by Suzanne Levine and Mary Thom, "Bella Abzug was an activist and leader in every major social movement of her lifetime -- from socialist Zionism and labor in the 40s, to the civil rights, ban-the-bomb and anti-Vietnam war movements in the 50s and 60s; the women's movement in the 70s and 80s; and, in the years before she died, global human rights."

At the age of 50, in 1970, Bella ran for office for the first time and was elected to Congress, representing a progressive district in Manhattan. Being on the inside was a new experience for her, but Bella became one of the most respected strategists in the Congress. Friend and foe alike marveled at her mastery of Congressional procedure and her innovative approaches to legislation."

I knew Bella personally in a small way from the time I was managing Ruth Messinger's campaign for City Council in 1977, when Bella was running for Mayor. This was a year after her ill-fated campaign for the U.S. Senate when she lost to the far more conservative Daniel Patrick Monihan by 1 percent of the vote -- Paul O' Dwyer and Ramsey Clark, both die-hard liberals, also ran in that election and took enough votes away from Bella to seal her fate.

In 1977, we sought to have Bella's endorsement for Messinger in the Democratic primary against Henry Berger. That effort produced loads of drama to say the least; but in the end, after much sturm und drang , Bella come through, and endorsed Ruth, who went on to a landslide victory. But alas Bella did not win.

During that time, I got to know Bella best via Ken Sunshine, who was close to her. Sunshine, who is now a top communications guru, representing A-list talent like Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, and Leo Di Caprio, remembers Bella fondly. In a recent interview, Sunshine laughed about Sarah Palin, saying, "Comparing Abzug and Palin is like comparing Michael Jordan to a high school bench warmer. Abzug had range, style, guts, and a desire to make the world better for everyone. Sarah Palin maybe has guts."

In the meantime, Sarah Palin has received enormous attention as the new leader of the hard core, wing-nut crowd. She cuts a media darling kind of image: an attractive super mom, with a studly husband, makes plenty of babies, juggles love and work, wears skirts and heels, shows plenty of leg, and speaks her mind. Of course, there is plenty of underside to Palin -- her inconsistencies, lack of knowledge, flirtation with corruption, skirting of the rules, fanatical religious and anti-women positions. The bad side of Palin has added up to the fact that as we approach election day, 57% of the public think that Palin is unqualified to be VP. But make no mistake. Sarah Palin isn't going away

So as we are head to the polls on Tuesday, it seems important to remind ourselves, just what passion, conviction, and effectiveness in politics is all about. Bella Abzug was deeply committed to the core issues of humanity -- the profound crucible of human rights and liberties, of peace and equality and justice for all. As the book's editors ask, "Where are the contemporary voices of outrage and defiant optimism? In recent years [the Bush Administration] has reconfigured the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world from trusted alliances to unilateral exercise of power, with barely a murmur from our elected representatives. Momentous issues are being decided virtually without public debate or accountability from Congress. It is inconceivable that Bella would have kept quiet in these circumstances. It is important to consider: If she were still among us, what would Bella do? If we are to carry forward her legacy, what should we do?"

What follows are colorful excerpts of the oral history told by some of the people who knew Bella best, including the brilliant Doug Ireland, who was Bella's campaign manager, and then a hard-hitting journalist, as well as some of her most trusted colleagues and peers like Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem, Nadine Hack, and Marlo Thomas. It is a fascinating and amazing history, and it reminds the reader just how different and lacking the political discourse is today.

From: Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way (Hardcover) by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom (FSG)

Doug Ireland: Bella was a very hands-on candidate, though I used to tell her that the old saw about the lawyer representing himself having a fool for a client was certainly applicable to electoral politics. But Bella was such a great organizer herself, she obviously thought she knew better than anybody else what had to be done. She was an extraordinarily dynamic candidate who had a charismatic physical presence on the streets when she campaigned.

Robin Morgan: She came late to feminism. She used to say that she didn't really call herself a feminist until after she was in Congress. She saw herself as a champion on civil rights, and of poor people. Sure, women had it bad too, but the big thing was peace and war. And then she was in office and visible. She began to get mail from women, saying speak out for us. So she found herself the voice of women. She was really honest about that.

Harold Holzer: Bella has always had just tremendous contacts in the theatrical community. She's a hero to the community because of her work during the House on Un-American Activities Committee blacklisting, purges, trials. She represented people -- Zero Mostel, Lee Grant, Tony Randall -- who then stayed with her and campaigned with her. All these guys knew that she was there, representing them, their fighter and their advocate, and they never forgot her. There was this buzz in the theatrical community that went on to a new generation, so Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, the young progressives, knew of that great history. They had it handed down from the older actors.

Doug Ireland: People forget how radical she was -- that she had radical, left-wind, socialist politics and came out of a movement that was revolutionary. You know, one of her proudest things was the little scar that she had above her eyebrow that she got at the Peekskill riots in 1949 -- somebody threw a rock at her when the American Legion [and other groups] came to protest Paul Robeson's concert for Civil Rights Congress** in Peekskill, New York.

*A concert scheduled for August 27, 1949, in Peekskill, New York, by the legendary African American actor and singer Paul Robeson -- who had been hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a subversive -- was cancelled when a mob including the KKK and the American Legion stoned the gathering. A week later Robeson returned along with some twenty-five thousand people, who heard him sing. However, people were stoned and beaten upon leaving the concert.

Ed Koch: Bella and I just disliked one another intensely, personally as well as politically. I think that Bella is a radical … I do not support radicalism, and I don't think it is good for the country, and I don't think it effectuates what we want, which is to remove the inequities without destroying the system … She is very smart, very smart. She has a lot of innovative ideas, which either come out of her own head or out of her staff or out of volunteers, and so she's had an impact there. Then there is her truck operation -- I'm talking about her personally running over you … She bulldozes people. And then there is also a sweet side to her personality. She can be a charmer. But overall … she is not as effective as the press would have you believe. Let me put it another way for you: there's always the feeling, and there's much to be said for its accuracy, that if Bella is for something, there's an automatic number who will be opposed to it … I would say there are at least thirty or forty people who have an intense dislike for her not in the ideologue category, who will not vote for something Bella is for.

Doug Ireland: Her candidacy for Congress the first time around came a year and a half after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, which marked the beginnings of the modern gay liberation movement, and there was a significant burgeoning activism by out-of-the-closet gay folks in New York City, who were moving into political activity. I persuaded Bella to take this seriously as a potential constituency -- there wasn't any serious disagreement about that -- and Bella was the first major electoral figure or candidate to actually go to the gay community and openly seek its votes. It was a rather extraordinary thing.

So we had her in Fire Island and in the gay bars. I put the Continental Baths on the schedule -- at that time it was a very well-known cabaret as well as being a bathhouse. It's where Bette Midler got her start. I arranged for Bella to make a campaign appearance during the break in show time. So I was sitting in headquarters and Bella calls up and says, "You cretin. What have you done to me? I'm up here in these fucking baths -- filled with guys in towels held up by Bella buttons and some are only wearing the buttons and not the towels!"

By this time we had already done a bar tour and people from the Gay Activist Alliance were active in her campaign. Bella was a veteran of the civil rights movement and had an instinctive response to the need for gay rights. Karl Marx once said, "Nothing human is alien to me." She had a radical interpretation of human rights and a respect for those who would fight for their own rights. When gay people stood up and said, "We're not gonna take it anymore, "she understood that they were applying to their own human condition the lessons a lot of us had learned in the struggle for black civil rights. She didn't have much trouble grasping the concept that discrimination on the basis of one's identity, even if that identity was a sexual identity, was just as fundamental a problem of civil and human rights as being black or being female.

Gloria Steinem: In 1973 Al Goldstein, a pornographer who published a tabloid called Screw, was harassing the staff of the then-new Ms. Magazine. He did this in all kinds of ways; for example, advertising an oral sex service with our phone number. What we heard when we picked up the phone was pretty depressing.

One day, just before my birthday, I left the office to discover a special birthday present from Al Goldstein. On the newsstand outside our building was a display of Screw hung open to show its centerfold, a graphic nude drawing of a woman with my face, sunglasses, and long hair. Down the side of the page were drawings of diverse penises and testicles, and at the top was the headline "Pin the Cock on the Feminist." I knew this issue of Screw couldn't last forever, so I decided to wait it out. But Goldstein made sure I learned that he was planning a glossy color poster of centerfold, something that could stay around for years. When I asked Nancy Wechsler, Ms.'s publishing lawyer, what to do, she suggested sending him a lawyer's letter. After all, the poster was for profit, nothing that could be protected as editorial comment, so the notice of a lawsuit might make Goldstein thing twice.

Soon, his answer arrived at my des. It was a box of chocolates with a note that said, "Eat It." Somehow, this was the last straw. It left me feeling hopeless and vulnerable. On the way to a benefit with Bella, she sensed my mood and asked me what was wrong. I told her the whole long saga, and was surprised to discover that I didn't get much sympathy from her at all. "You don't understand," I said, "it's a nude centerfold in full labial detail -- and it has my face and head." "And my labia," Bella deadpanned. I burst out laughing.

Ron Dellums: Here are these three incredibly strong women in Congress. Bella, brilliant, with a nonstop work ethic, a high-energy person with a lot of passion -- and enough of an edge that you know you have to deal with it. And Shirley Chisholm had a number of the same characteristics. Their styles were different, but they felt very strongly about themselves. And here's [Congresswoman] Barbara Jordan, who in one moment during the Nixon impeachment catapults herself into history -- almost with one speech, "The Constitution states . . ."** Those words were echoed around the world. All three of them had that very same thing, although they manifested it in different ways: "I'm here to walk in a room now, just do nothing but walk in a room, and get a standing ovation. You and I both know how much time it would require me to gain the power and influence that they already think I have." I was one of the people who knew that she would have greatly wanted to be appointed attorney general. And Shirley Chisholm went out there to run for president, which was such an audacious move that I just said, "Let me get on a plane and fly to New York and stand with this feisty woman." Across race and gender, she said, "Deal with me, as a human being." As Barbara Jordan did, and Bella. They got along with each other because they respected each other. Here are three incredibly strong women who could have butted heads, but they didn't. They were very different people, and they staked out different turf. But when they came together, they came supportive of each other.

Nadine Hack: I grew up in Brooklyn, and Shirley ran for Congress in Brooklyn. And I worked on Shirley's campaign, and I worked with Bella on Shirley's congressional campaign, which was 1968, and Bella's was 1970. I worked with a lot of civil rights activists, and I worked with a lot of women's rights activists and there were many people in both movements who kind of sacrificed the other movements, because they always said, "Well, this is our movements, and that one comes second." But the two of them were just constant in their articulation that we cannot deal with these issues separately, they're inextricably connected, and we're going to be the stronger if we work in coalition. For me, it referenced back to the first wave, because I think that when the suffragists and the abolitionists worked together, that's when the movement was the strongest. When there was the split -- and there was a real split, and a very conscious decision on the part of each of the movements to say, "No, we have to promote our movement" -- those two movements lost momentum, each of them by their loss of the other. Shirley, Bella, and Gloria are the best proponents of the whole constellation of social justice issues. There are very few people who helped shape that as much as Shirley.

Eileen Shanahan: Bella was one of the people behind the equality-in-credit legislation. But there was something more than legislation. There were things that she believed -- and she was right -- could be done by the Federal Reserve as a matter of bank regulation. They didn't really need a law to tell banks that they had to cut out this unequal treatment of women and just look at the economics of a given loan applicant, an economic decision. Bella called the chairman of the Federal Reserve at that time, Arthur Burns, a brilliant man, but one of the most high-handed, arrogant people I've ever known, who would just brush aside anyone -- pretty much regardless of gender -- who disagreed with him on anything … Anyway, she requested that he come up to meet with her and some other people on this issue of credit for women. I will say I had a very good source inside the Fed at that time, a young woman economist who was telling me what was happening behind the scenes, which is how I know about this.

Burns went up there expecting to meet with Bella and "some screamers for NOW" was the way my source put it. Instead, she had -- I forget how many women there were in the House at that time. If there were sixteen, she had fourteen of them there. And he walks into this room and she took him around the room saying "I would like you to meet Congresswoman So-and-So and Congresswoman So-and-So," until he realized that she had virtually all the women members of Congress there. I guess there weren't any in the Senate at that time. And they were all saying to him, "you get those regulations fixed." And it worked.

Maxine Waters: The women's conference in Houston was my real entrance into feminist national politics, and Bella became one of the most influential women in my life. I remember at Houston, when I was just getting to know Bella, she didn't like something that Gloria Steinem had done and she dressed Gloria down. She shouted at her. And I thought, "Oh, my God. What is she doing?" I couldn't believe it. I said to Gloria right after, "I'm so sorry!" She said, "Oh, that's nothing. That's just the way we talk to each other in New York." When you got to know Bella she couldn't insult you because you knew her -- you know what I'm saying? But if you didn't know her, you would think that she was the meanest, toughest woman in the world.

I was really gung ho at that conference. I ended up working with the minority women who put together a plank. And Gloria helped to write the plank with us.

Marlo Thomas: Bella wanted me to marry Phil. She nagged me terribly. I called her "Tanta Bella," because she was always, "Well, why don't you marry him? There's someone better than that?" She wanted me to be married. Her wedding present was the first to arrive -- a Delft china fruit compote thing, beautiful. I always think of her when I take it out.

Doug Ireland: I was opposed to her running for the Senate, having gone through the first campaign to send her to Congress and then that terribly bitter '72 campaign against Bill Ryan. I would tell her, "This is not a congressional seat any longer. It's an annuity. You can represent this district until you die, and you will accumulate enormous seniority." Since the Voting Rights Act of 1964, things were beginning to change in the Democratic Party. One saw the withering away of the domination of the southern Democrats, whose longevity had given them a death grip on the committee chairs in the House. Bella was one of the greatest coalition builders ever to be in the House of Representatives. By this time, because of her charm when she turned it on and her undeniably brilliant legal mind, she had gotten the reputation as an extraordinarily effective congresswoman. She was able to build coalitions with some very conservative people on various issues, including some of those old southern Democrats.

Marlo Thomas: At the end of the ERA campaign, Illinois was critical, one of three possible states where the legislature could assure ratification. And Phyllis Schlafly was scheduled to be a guest on the Phil Donahue show. Bella called me and said, "You've got to tell him not to put her on." I said, "You know, Bella, I can't tell Phil how to run his show. He's a political animal. I'll talk to him, but I've got to tell you, I don't have the power to stop him from doing his show." We were in Chicago, and I went to Phil. I said, "You know I have to tell you that I'm killing myself, as we all are, to pass the ERA. The vote is coming in Illinois, and for you to put on Phyllis Schlafly the week of the vote is really going to hurt us." He said to me, "If you don't understand why I have to put on Phyllis Schlafly the week of the vote, then you don't understand what I do."

I called Bella. She was furious. I knew that was going to be his answer. You can't tell someone who works in topical television to not show the other side of the argument. He had had Ellie Smeal and everyone else on, and now it was the other side's turn. And Bella found that absolutely unacceptable. I said, "Bella, this is what he does. I can't stop him from reporting the news." She banged the phone down.

Robin Morgan: Bella was an extraordinary organizer. I remember so many times -- the UN World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, for example, the second one, in 1980, after Mexico City. We already had worked together and knew each other well. Bella came up with the idea that we should make a caucus of Arab and Jewish women. I had some credibility among the Arabs, and she, of course, was understood as a major leader of the Jews. After lobbying these disparate groups, we had five or six women ready to talk, but where would it happen, and when? Bella said breakfast, and I said, but some of the meetings start at seven in the morning. People would need some time to themselves to start the day. She said, "No, you're missing the point. We get them together at 6:00 a.m. Nobody wants to talk at 6:00 a.m., so they're going to have to listen." And they did. We didn't solve the Middle East, but by the end of the meeting, everybody was crying because we made them tell stories about their lives as women. That magic happened, where people embrace and cry and exchange telephone numbers.

Shirley MacLaine: Bella used to come to channeling sessions with me quite regularly. And we argued afterwards about whether it could be possible. I said, "You came from the Orthodox tradition, you know the soul leaves at night and comes back." And she said, "Yes. That's the part that could be true." One night -- it was Christmas Eve out at Malibu -- and Jack Pursel, the one who channels Lazaris, was there. She got on her high horse, and she said, "Okay. If you came back and you decided that you wanted to be a human being like the rest of us, a physical presence, what would you do?" And he said -- this is the channel talking -- "Preferably, I would sit under a tree and watch the human race. I would observe what they are about and try to understand their emotions." "You mean you would do nothing?" she said. "You mean you'd fucking do nothing?" Like she's talking to a channel from God or something like that. The channel never moves. It so infuriated her. She screamed for an hour until all the people at my party left and went to a movie. And she's still screaming at this person who is in a trance, and Lazaris is saying, "There is no need to get upset. I simply want to observe the human race." After that I said to Bella, "You know your problem? You're like Mother Teresa. If he doesn't want to do anything for people, because it's up to the rest of us to do for ourselves and for each other, why can't you let him do that? Why do you have to be everybody's savior?" And that made her madder. She said, "Oh, all you New Age fuckheads. You never take a position. You have no spine."

Liz Abzug: I had some fights then with her at that period because this is when I'm coming into my own being, I'm "out"; I'm working very hard, I'm trying to make this decision to run for office. She was uptight about the fact that I would be running as an out lesbian. I had to confront her many times, many ways, and even confront my own issue to deal with that. I confronted her about her role in life and being the first person to actually introduce the gay rights bill and yet have this hypocrisy of not ever accepting this very well with me. I think she was also very frightened on a personal level to have her friends know at first.

I had several serious boyfriends that she knew, and was engaged to a man I lived with in college and afterward. He was very involved in our lives and the campaigns, and she kept asking me about him. I finally said, "This is my choice; I don't hate men, I love men. I've had great relationships with some men, as you well know!" But over and over she asked for the explanations, and "where did she go wrong?"

Finally when she was going to one of her conferences abroad, and she was giving me hell over all of this, I said to her, "If you keep up like this and don't accept who I am, you ain't gonna see me, at all!" I said, "I'm not kidding. I am not kidding! I mean that!" And she said, "Oh, really?" And I said, Oh, really! So make your choice; do you want to see me, and accept who I am and who I'm with, or do you not want to see me at all?" She went on the plane; she was hysterical, very upset, called my sister from the plane. And my sister's calling me and says, "She's calling me from the plane, she's so upset. What did you say to her?" And I told her. She wrote this long note to me from the plane, and I said, "I'm really sorry I treated you so badly. I really love you. I think you're terrific. And I'm so sorry I've hurt you so deeply. And I'm going to try." And that turned the corner.

In a different era, not having been with my father, who she truly loved and he truly loved her, she probably could have been with a woman. I think she would not face her own demons, and I think this was a big conflict for her that she never resolved.

Jane Fonda: The reason the Cairo conference on population was so crucial is because that was the first time women's NGOs were actually at the table. Bella asked me to come and speak to a group of women from developing countries. I was then a goodwill ambassador [for a UN family planning agency], but I was seeing population at that point in my evolution as an environmental issue. So I spoke to them from that point of view -- and I got booed! Maybe that's why Bella brought me there. She knew that I needed to hear from women that the real conceptual framework of the conference -- of everything! -- was gender. I had never understood before.

Gloria Steinem: [Bella was not just] the woman who fought the revolution. She was the woman we want to be after the revolution. [As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1984], "In a perfectly just republic, Bella Abzug would be president."

Hillary Clinton: As I travel around the world … I am always meeting women who introduce themselves by saying, "I'm the Bella Abzug of Russia," or "I'm the Bella Abzug of Kazakhstan," or "I'm the Bella Abzug of Uganda." Now what these women are really saying, whether or not they wear the hat of an advocate like Bella, is that they, too, are pioneers, that they are willing to take on the establishment and the institutions of their society on behalf of the rights of women, but not just that, on behalf of what families need, on behalf of peace, on behalf of civil society, all the many and varied causes that Bella stood for throughout her long and active life … She liked to say, "First they gave us the year of the woman, then they gave us the decade of the woman. Sooner or later, they'll have to give us the whole thing." She never stopped fighting for "the whole thing." So when women around the world say to me, "I am the Bella Abzug" from somewhere, I know what they really mean is that they'll never give up.

**Barbara Jordan's influential opening statement at the televised House proceedings on the impeachment of President Nixon, July 25, 1974, reminded her Judiciary Committee colleagues of the constitutional basis for that action: "My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution." And later, "If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth-century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder."

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

 
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