Politics & Policy

Abzug

Bella Abzug (right) with Jane Fonda in 1995. (Will Burgess/Reuters)
The Gimlet Eye columnist D. Keith Mano attends an upstate speech of Ms. Abzug, catching the Congresswoman, leftist, and feminist icon in her standard demagogue mode.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the March 14, 1975, issue of National Review and is part of a weekend series of classic D. Keith Mano columns.


The term “onomatopoeic” has been used by linguists to designate words and names which presumably derive from some sound heard in nature. Thus the word “drip” is “drip” because it sounds remarkably like dripping. I have no linguistic credentials; still, I can assure you that the word abzug, as applied to its best known object, is onomatopoeic of a human soul.

Say it softly under your breath, abzug, abzug. Bella wallows out of the sound, her mammoth, sluggish hips ridiculing a body’s natural ball and socket litheness. Abzug, abzug: the strange, hooded, leering. Mongoloid eyes. Abzug: the too many teeth, which are certainly all there, yet seem gapped, now above, now below. Abzug: the demagogue’s rhetoric, husked out in a voice which cannot be categorized by sex, gross and shameless as the thing itself. This grossness is a tool, used as Belle Barth used grossness. To shock. After all, what you can’t cosmetize must be made a virtue. For the reasons, I refer you to John Murray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility — an ordeal that Bella Abzug was never even invited to.

At the lectern she plumps for women. There are none in the Senate. “I’ve always said that a stag Senate means stagnation.” (Laughter, much applause.) But her attack is just that, stag as a traveling salesmen’s smoker. The voice, of course. The hats which are always male hats, with the testosterone sucked out of them. The butch haircut. She wears a necklace underneath her drab, brown dress; you can see one or two pearls at Bella’s thick nape. Introduced as “wife and mother,” Bella Abzug looks like Jacob Javits in drag.

And where is she? She’s at Orange County Community College, which is nowhere in particular. OCCC sponsors such important noncredit courses as 01001: Dog Obedience 1; 01279: Volkswagen Repair (Know Your Volkswagen); 03372: Quilting 1; 03373: Quilting 2 (Designed for those students who have had Quilting 1); NBG-33: Fly-fishing; and the ever popular NBG27: Cake and Food Decorating 1 (professional icing tricks, border designs and lovely flowers, are part of this course).

It’s a Village nightclub routine. Bella will indicate as much. Her prescription tor a new America ends with this tagline: “And we’ve got to see to it that we can have a few laughs once in a while, like tonight.” Her delivery, her timing are professional, always on the offensive. More a heckler than a standup comedian. The audience is mostly middle-aged: OCCC faculty and rural humanists. Bella, among hicks, appears just a bit uncertain. She mocks them to their faces. “I find it very interesting that I’m up here in . . . Middletown.” (Prolonged pause, laughter.) And later, “I don’t know how much gets through up here.” (Laughter, applause.) They eat it up. Clapping for Bella Abzug, that’s as close as they’ll get to Big Apple liberalism. And she needs the laughter; it reassures. She wants, in her way, to be loved.

And here are just some of the statements they applaud.

“Watergate brought us closer than ever before in our history to authoritarian government.” Of the House freedom of information and privacy acts, which Bella helped write: “How can you find out what the government is doing and how can you keep the government from finding out what you’re doing? You have no idea the amount of files that have been collected on you and everybody else in the nation.” Yes, I have. What admirable statements for a conservative. What flagrant hypocrisy for a liberal. Bella’s sort of government thrives on intrusion, on manipulation, on voyeuristic census questionnaires. For a small federal contract at my cement factory we have to declare what percentage of blacks, Puerto Ricans, handicapped are employed, how many bathrooms we have, even what amount of recycled pulp is used in our shipping cartons, a question that no box manufacturer can answer with certainty. It goes on and on.

Listen to this outrageous juxtaposition. “He [Ford] wants us to authorize $ 105 billion for the new military budget. Think of it; $105 billion for new nuclear weapons, when we already have enough to destroy the world.” She said that. She did; I have it on tape. But no mention of $2 billion in military aid to Israel and the fawning crowd doesn’t face her with it. Here’s another, painful as a fork tine on your molar filling. “We’ll have a lot of missiles and submarines lying around. If we don’t use them, they’re worthless. And if we do use them, we’ll all be . . . dead.” (Laughter, applause.) It’s funny enough. She intones “dead” the way a Malamud character would. But the gesture, palm uplifted, announces merely the death of reason. Laughter. Applause.

And this. “His [Ford’s] duty on oil imports will mean higher expenses for millions of Americans who depend on their cars to go to work.” (Applause.) But trouble here. An innocent fool asks Bella to evaluate Governor Carey’s budget. Now the Governor wants to put a ten-cent per gallon tax on gas. Suddenly she becomes quiet, reasonable; she temporizes. “Well . . . I have some questions about it, I realize the gasoline tax is going to work a hardship for people who need their cars to go to work . . . and I have some questions about that . . . and have so indicated . . . I . . . uh, was glad to see there was some consideration . . . in which he is giving some moneys to [inaudible].” So many “somes” after so many demagogic affirmatives. And. Lord knows, the first inaudible.

Why does Bella Abzug need Governor Carey? Why is she in Middletown, N.Y.? Someone yells out, “Bella in 76!” She demurs, “I’m thinking of running for a different office in 1976.” What else, Jim Buckley’s stag Senate seat. Well, let her try. I don’t, I won’t believe the state at large can stomach this dangerous and arrogant clown. I don’t believe she would win anything outside her freakish, special precincts, any more than Adam Clayton Powell Jr. could have won outside his. But if Bella does win, at least we’ll know: that the mark of the beast is on us and an end must come.

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D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

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