Bella Abzug died on March 31, a stranger to the times. She lived long enough to see politics, a profession she loved, and government, an institution she treasured, devolve into a game of trivial pursuits and limited expectations. And she saw a city and state she viewed as a force for progress settle into the smug satisfaction of the status quo.
She had much higher hopes for New York when she emerged from the feminist and antiwar movements of the 1960’s to win a Congressional seat in 1970. She believed in the politics of possibilities; when she died, politics seemed to offer little save pointless posturing and malicious gossip.
Remember this about Ms. Abzug: She was a feminist pioneer when she ran for the United States Senate in 1976 and for Mayor in 1977. Two decades later, the city and state have yet to elect a woman to statewide office or to the mayoralty. When that time finally arrives, the precedent-setter may very well not have any adult memories of Bella Abzug and her times. And what times they were: “You could get things changed,” recalled Ed Koch, another veteran of those days. “People you never heard of could run for office and win.” One of them was Bella Abzug.
For a woman who struck such a chord, who forced her way into the collective consciousness of New York in the mid-1970’s, it’s notable to recall that she served just six years as a member of Congress from the West Side. (Historical update: That would be the West Side of 25 years ago, of course, long before the neighborhood’s gentrification and Giulianification.) In that short span, however, she became a national figure, brash and opinionated, wearing big floppy hats as she shouted against war and racism and Richard Nixon. She worked at the details of governing, too, and pushed through the House a bill that allowed the city to get Federal mass-transit money in exchange for funds designated for the failed Westway boondoggle. That stroke of genius helped pay for the reconstruction of the subway system.
She was known for in-your-face politics long before the phrase was coined, but friends saw another side, one she didn’t often show in public. City Council member Ronnie Eldridge recalled visiting Ms. Abzug in the Capitol in the early 1970’s, just after Ms. Eldridge’s first husband died. “She’d take me up to the [Capitol] balcony, and she’d be pointing out [people]. Other people would always say she was pointing out the supporters of the military-industrial complex. Instead, she was pointing out the eligible bachelors.”
When she passed up certain re-election to the House in 1976 in a vain effort to win the Democratic Senate nomination, she never again held elective office. But what battles she waged! The Senate and mayoral Democratic primaries of 1976 and 1977 were colossal events featuring huge personalities: In ’76, the Senate primary pitted Ms. Abzug against Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the eventual winner), legendary civil rights lawyer Paul O’Dwyer and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Politics actually meant something back then, and her supporters viewed her loss as a something of a tragedy. It wasn’t, and Mr. Moynihan has gone on to become one of New York’s great senators, but such were the emotions of the time.
Undaunted by defeat, she launched a campaign to become Mayor in 1977. Then, she faced Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, the incumbent Abe Beame, Percy Sutton and Herman Badillo. We have not seen such a cast of characters since. And in this collection of mostly larger-than-life personalities, none was larger than Bella Abzug.
“She’s in the history books for all the involvement she had in the politics of New York and the politics of the United States,” said Mr. Koch. “I always admired her and believe that she changed the life of the country in a number of respects, two in particular: One, by leading the fight for equality for women, the other by being part of the leadership to end the war in Vietnam.” Mr. Koch conceded that he often disagreed with Abzug (particularly in 1977, when she supported Mr. Cuomo against Mr. Koch in the mayoral primary runoff), but he viewed her as that rarest of political species, a leader.
Just a few months ago, Ms. Abzug admitted that she was “very disappointed” that no woman had yet been elected on her own to a statewide office in New York. “New York,” she said, “stands very strongly for the status quo.”
History will not say any such thing about Bella Abzug.
-Terry Golway and Greg Sargent
The Monica Diaries
Continued excerpts from several hundred loose pages, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, which were dumped on The Observer’ s front stoop and labeled, “The atached (sic) is my story, the story of a white house intirn (sic) in my own words, not that bitch Linda. ML.”
August 16, 1997, 11:15 P.M.
went over to L.’s for Chinese and she had pink wine that tasted like medecine and shes allready ordered and its some kind of beef thing which is not doing my butt any favors and i give her the big news which is that Creepo said he would sleep with me at a hotel and shes like Wow!!! and im like, I will have him to myself the whole night!! then she goes to bathroom and im dying for a ciggie so in her purse theres cheapo lipstick sample perfumes tic tacs keys nail clipper tiny tape recorder extra stockings and no ciggies then she comes back with lowfat haagan daaz and says Dig in!
August 18, 1997, 12:10 A.M.
well, just fuck me i all i can say … i went to hotel like Creepo said at 8 and it was hard to find and i tell the conseeurge the name Creepo gave me and im holding my empty suitcase and the room is romantic and i wait and wait and no Creepo so i take a bubble bath and lite candles i brought and still no Fuckface so i call room service and order champagne then i put on the new teddy and i look at myself in the mirror and i am sooo fat and then the door opens and this secret service guy i recognize just walks in and I say Try knocking-its american? and he doesnt smile just walks around room then leaves and Fuckface comes in and hes wearing the blue suit i love and im like Hiii!! and i give him this big hug and hes like Hi! and im like This place is sooo romantic lets order room service after and he’s like, Ok, and he sits on the bed and I kiss his ear which is so cute but hes unbuckling and he sort of helps me down to the floor and i try to pull him down so he will take me but he stays and sort of pulls my head to his thingy so i give the BJ and after he walks to the teeny fridge and gets a diet coke and im like Champagne is on the way! and he drinks the whole diet coke at once and says hes sorry but hes needed at WH and i say i thought we were sleeping together tonite? and he’s all nervous and his hand is on the door and he says he’ll call me tomorrow and the door opens and the secret service guy takes him away and im way pissed and i get dressed and leave not waiting for the champagne and when i pass the front desk they say my bill is $275 including champagne and i say Didn’t he pay and they say who? so i give them daddy’s gold visa and now i wish i had at least brought home the champagne.