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What Makes Bella Run?

"…Bella is trying to prove that New York is ready for a municipal matriarchy…"

From the June 20, 1977 issue of New York Magazine.

For anyone else, it would have been a moment of truth. Here she is: ex-congressperson, almost United States senator, now candidate for mayor of New York—probably the best-known female politician in America—sitting here in the airless Harvard room, allowing the arrogant eighteen-year-old photographer to compound the record-breaking heat with a battery of lights and the endless snapping of pictures, which he knows, and she knows, will never be published anywhere. Her perky little straw hat is beginning to wilt and she’s perspiring, even though she’s already traded in her early-morning long-sleeved Ultrasuede suit for a cooler short-sleeved model, and Bella is trying, really trying, to fire up these twenty undergrads who are simply not getting her at all.

All morning long, she’s been hearing about John Connally, who preceded her at Harvard’s Institute of Politics as visiting fellow. People have been telling Bella the Connally turnout was so astounding—so unexpectedly reverential—that one professor was heard to wonder if “the Harvards” imagined Watergate to be anything but the name of an apartment complex. But she doesn’t seem to hear this. Earlier, Bella, Hunter-educated, was grousing in the car—but loving it too—about being “the visiting fireman” in this elitist territory. Perhaps her memories of Harvard are of the political strikes and rallies of the glorious war years. So she does not appear to get agitated that the twenty kids surrounding her at the Winthrop House lunch do not have a single interesting question to ask. In fact, she seems oblivious to every indignity—until a soccer player announces there are no issues worth getting fired up about.

“You think we’re living in calm times?” In a gesture I will see her repeat on a dozen occasions, Bella snaps into a different mental and physical state, as if she is most herself when she is on the attack. Her hand grabs the table for strength. Her voice shifts from basso Abzug-at-rest to a decibel level a colleague on the Public Works Committee once likened to sitting next to an airport. And Bella Abzug—the Bella Abzug you either love or hate but cannot, no matter how you try, ignore—starts yelling at the Harvard soccer player.

“Nothing for kids to be concerned about? You’ve got unemployment, you have got nuclear proliferation in technology that’s crazy, you’ve got the cities decaying for a lack of funds all over this great country, you’ve got a failure of major programs in education, you have enormous energy problems—aren’t these global problems?” She hesitates for a moment; in New York at this point she’d be getting an orgiastic response. Here? Nothing. She peers over her half-rimmed glasses, seeing, as if for the first time, that these faces are, if not bored, at least uncomprehending, but she cannot not press the point. “Well, what do you kids think about that?

And still there is no cacophony of voices. Finally a blond Harvard female speaks up. “Well, frankly, Mrs. Abzug, here at Harvard, I don’t think most of us worry about unemployment. Actually, most of us have summer jobs that are…quite good.”

At last, a gauntlet. “What kind of jobs?”

Now she is flooded with responses. This summer, Harvard students will work at HEW. One will write “little phrases and words” for President Carter’s speeches. Another will report politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jobs like that.

Hearing this, Abzug shows no annoyance. It’s almost as if this dash of reality therapy causes Bella to tune out. “Well, if you go to City College, you don’t get a job so easily,” she tells them, but it is conceding the point; she saves her energy for the issues.

For the Harvards, the issue is reverse discrimination—aren’t women being favored too much?—but Bella hurdles that with stunning outrage, then goes on to the next topic: a set speech about the decaying infrastructures of the city that makes sense only to Bella and one or two other New Yorkers in the room. Finally she notices that the photographer’s lights have congealed the oil and the mayonnaise in her picked-over salad, and nobody has a glass of water for her, and just as you think, Why is she putting herself through this? someone asks the day’s first personal question: “Bella, is it depressing for you to see this apathy? To see that nobody cares?”

If Bella Abzug has ever entertained this thought, she doesn’t show it; she won’t even dignify the possibility of doubt with a first-¬person pronoun.

“You can’t allow yourself to get discouraged,” she says. “Because if you get discouraged, you’d…just…stop.”

Stopping—even slowing down—is something Bella Abzug cannot allow herself to do, so she is running for mayor instead. It hasn’t been the easiest decision. “For health reasons,” her family wishes she wouldn’t, and Bella is aware that running New York “is the toughest job, maybe in the world.” Friends have been telling her that she’s “a legislator, not an administrator” and that her career can’t sustain two losses in the same year. And they tell her “What do you want to be, like John Lindsay and wind up on Good Morning, America?


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Jun 20, 1977 issue of New York
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