Bella Abzug was the greatest organizer I’ve ever seen. I was a young anti-Vietnam War sprout when I met her in 1964, and she quickly organized me into helping her organize peace activists to take over Manhattan Democratic clubs and turn them against the slaughter. This led to her key role in the creation of the Dump Johnson movement, which spawned the 1968 antiwar presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.
An unabashed but pragmatic radical, Bella was a person of great moral and physical courage, as I saw up close when I managed her winning campaign for Congress in 1970. At a demonstration against police brutality on the Lower East Side, she tried desperately to keep the rally from turning into a hot summer night’s riot. While her aides cowered in a doorway, there was Bella, in the middle of the mêlée, exhorting the rioters to choose political action over violence as bricks and bottles crashed around her.
Bella could curse like a stevedore, belt out a song like Sophie Tucker, orate like La Pasionaria. In her tireless crusading for the issues she cared about, she was corrosively demanding; hurling the Yellow Pages at your head was a favorite expression of her displeasure. In her 1976 Senate campaign, which I also managed, she once tried to throw her press secretary out of a moving helicopter. But these frasques never lasted, and a few minutes later she’d envelope you with motherly concern or crack a (usually ribald) joke.
Bella felt people’s pain in a way that Bill Clinton can only pretend to. That’s why she became the first major political figure to embrace gay rights and court the gay vote openly. When I sent her to campaign at the infamous Continental Baths’ gay cabaret night in 1970, she called me from a pay phone, hollering, “There’s a bunch of fellas here wearin’ nothin’ but towels pinned together with bella buttons, and some of ‘em are only wearing the buttons but not the towels!” We were all proud when she introduced the first federal bill to extend the protection of civil-rights laws to gay people.
She was a killer poker player, which stood her in good stead in Congress: She knew when to hold ‘em or fold ‘em, which is how she wrote – and passed – the Freedom of Information, Right to Privacy, and Sunshine in Government acts, as well as the first federal law guaranteeing women access to credit. Brilliant and exigent, she had a saving, self-mocking sense of humor. I know that Bella would be happy if we took as her epitaph the last words of labor martyr Joe Hill, immortalized in the song that she loved to sing on those rare occasions she permitted herself a Scotch: “Don’t mourn for me – organize.”