News & Politics

The Battle of Bella Abzug & Bill Ryan


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 8, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 23

The battle of Bella & Bill
By Phil Tracy

With Ryan it’s the older men. They come up to him and say thins like “I hope you beat that dame,” “You gotta clobber that broad,” “Good luck Bill! I hope you beat that woman. We don’t need any of them in there.” While it wouldn’t be fair to say Ryan encourages such talk, it wouldn’t be honest to say he discourages it either. Like any politician on the stump he takes his support where he finds it and the devil take the hindquarter. But he does naturally gravitate toward the men he meets on the street. He grabs their hands first, and if he’s talking to a couple or a group of people nine times out of 10 he’s looking at the man.

Bella is a little more obvious. She searches women out and talks quite frankly about being a woman in Congress.

In one afternoon of campaigning only once did she miss the opportunity to go into a beauty parlor to chat with the hairdressers and customers. Bella knows it you want to get the women’s vote the beauty parlor is the place to zero in. And the women, especially the young and every once in a while the very old, respond in kind. “You’re doing a good job for us.” “Don’t let them knock you out.” “We’re with you all the way.” There is no doubt precisely who they mean by “we” and “they.” For better or for worse, the age of sexual politics is upon us.

The one characteristic common to all politicians is ego. Without it they could never make a speech, never run for office, never believe in themselves enough to have the guts to ask others to believe in them. Cold facts show that politicians have little personal impact. Even when they do differ considerably on the issues, once they get into office the on-going process of tradition and diluted power usually wipes out whatever substantial differences their individual approaches might make.

When you start dealing with something as unwieldy and encrusted as the Congress the whole question becomes ridiculous. A congressman or congresswoman has to be either a fool or an egomaniac to believe their own personal re-election will have any substantial effect on the course of the nation or the lives of their constituents. Yet every two years they run as if it did. There are a couple of fools in the New York congressional delegation but most of them are simple egomaniacs. It’s almost a requirement of the job.

What separates the Abzug-Ryan race from the rest of the congressional campaigns is that so many people with better things to do have apparently signed on for their respective ego trips.. No congressional race in recent history has stirred so much activity or passion. Each candidate has an endorsement list which runs into hundreds of names. Each is raising a war chest somewhere in the vicinity of $100,000 for the June 20 primary. Both have sizable campaign staffs numbering in the dozens and hundreds of volunteers who have contributed time or money to their respective efforts. It’s as if, by some curious formula, the lack of importance and the absence of substantial difference between Abzug and Ryan have only increased the ferocious intensity of the campaign.

There are several congressional races where, for what it’s with, there are major differences between the candidates. There is even one race in Brooklyn where a 20-year veteran who has used his seniority to thwart progressive legislation could be unseated. Yet all over the city, interest has been focused on a race between two candidates, neither of whom is particularly powerful or well liked in Washington and both of whom regularly vote the same way. So if it can be said that the one thing that sets an effective politician apart from the host of mediocre ones we are annually subjected to is the talent for getting voters to identify with his/her private ego trip and believe despite the obvious that his/her voice and presence will make a difference, then the first thing that can be said about the Abzug-Ryan race is that it’s being fought by a couple of very effective politicians.

The main reason for all this interest is that the Abzug-Ryan fight is shaping up as the classic example of sexual politics. By choosing to run against an incumbent liberal who has stood for all the right things, Bella has set the stage for the testing of a new political order. If she is victorious, it will mark the first time a woman has won out over a man, not by virtue of any political persuasion but simply because she is a woman. That kind of proposition is relatively new. Women have gotten elected to Congress in the past usually because their husbands died in office and the public put them in out of sympathy or, as in the case of Louise Day Hicks or Bella herself when she ran against Farbstein, because they became identified with a politically popular position which their opponent failed to pick up on. But in her current race, Bella is really saying only a woman can represent women, regardless of how good the man’s voting record is, so if we are going to start replacing men with women in order to achieve equal representation, let’s start her and now with me and Bill Ryan and the hell with how he voted. And conversely, Ryan is saying look at my record and here are my achievements. This woman can’t possibly match them. Are you going to throw me out in the street just because I’m a man and women are under-represented in Congress?

Of course, neither candidate talks like that in public. Ryan claims he’s a “fighting” congressman and Bella says she’s an “activist” congresswoman. Each one has a liberal sprinkling of supporters among the opposite sex. Ryan has a couple of well-known feminists supporting him and Bella has her share of male chauvinists in her entourage. The campaign literature and the candidates’ speeches speak of differing approaches and individual accomplishments but the only clear-cut distinction between Bill Ryan and Bella Abzug is their sex.

If further proof is needed to demonstrate the sexual nature of the campaign one need only look at the way the male liberal political establishment of this city has lined up behind Ryan. With the exception of Carter Burden and Dick Gottfried, no other elected official in the city has seen fit to endorse Abzug. By contrast, Ryan has scores of endorsements from men in public office. Part of the reason for this no doubt is Bella’s own personality, and in a few instances perhaps a personal loyalty to Ryan. But if Ryan were running in a primary against Ed Koch, one suspects a good many public officials would just as soon sit out the race. A very healthy sense of self-preservation is at work. While most of them talk about Ryan’s record and the need for loyalty, what they’re thinking is “if Ryan goes, will I be next?” After all, the whole point of Bella saying “I have to run where I can win” is a tip-off to exactly where the women plan to seek equal representation first — liberal urban constituencies. The process is already at work. For every Liz Holtzman running against a Manny Celler there’s a Natalie Becker challenging an Al Blumenthal. The Democrats on the West Side of Manhattan facing sophisticated electorates have a lot more to fear from women like Bella than all the Republicans in Kansas put together.

But if the stakes of this sexual confrontation are somewhat higher than usual, the most ironic aspect of this campaign is the choice of champions both sides have made. Women’s liberation and status quo male supremacy would have to search far and wide to find two more unlikely heroes. As a male supremacist, Ryan is a flop. Beyond his work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and sponsorship of various amendments barring discrimination on the basis of sex, Ryan is the antithesis of the clubbish male-oriented inner circle that defines so much of Washington’s political outlook.

First and foremost Ryan is a loner. For many years he held the spot Bella now has as perhaps the most disliked congressman on the hill. When he first came to Congress Ryan was the only guy around who openly advocated relations with Red China and the abolishment of HUAC. He could get away with those positions precisely because he had such a liberal constituency in his district. But he had the habit of rubbing the noses of other “liberal” but less outspoken colleagues in the dirt of their own inconsistencies. Far from adopting the traditional “go along” attitude, Ryan would constantly put up amendments forcing his fellow members to vote on issues they would rather have avoided.

Another aspect of Ryan’s personality that has continually diminished his effectiveness is his stubborn sense of pride. While self-pride is not a particularly bad quality, Ryan pushes it to ridiculous extremes. One example of the way it works against him is the way he has handled the question of his health in the current campaign.

According to Ryan, two years ago he had an operation for the removal of a lymph gland. Ryan says the operation was a success and the only side effect is that his voice is temporarily indistinct. In point of fact, the operation has apparently affected the physical features of his face and his ability to move his mouth.

Normally a politician will release a medical report indicating the state of his health whenever the question comes up during a campaign. But Ryan has refused to do so despite the repeated pleadings of several of his staff members. Making Ryan’s stubbornness even more incomprehensible are the repeated rumors running around the district that the operation was really for cancer and that Ryan is dying.

Ryan’s staff has claimed repeatedly that the rumors are being spread by Abzug and her staff. In truth, some people who either are or have been connected with Bella’s campaign have said as much to me in private conversation. But no one has ever come forward and claimed Bella herself has either said or ever encouraged such malicious gossip.

Bella claims she is outraged by the suggestion that she would stoop to such tactics and also suggests that the Ryan people have made the story up in order to cash in on the sympathy vote. In a situation like this it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth, but it does seem justified to criticize Ryan for allowing a misplaced sense of pride to keep him from releasing a medical report. That way he could put the whole question to rest in two minutes flat.

The price Ryan ha paid for his stubborn, dogmatic, and at times self-righteous attitude is the loss of power he might have had within the Congress, give his 10-year seniority. For his first few terms in office Ryan as stuck with miserable committee assignments, and when he finally got himself shifted to the Judiciary and Interior committees, he had to take a loss in seniority within them. Hence Ryan is probably the only 10-year man in the House without a subcommittee chairmanship.

In more recent years Ryan’s loner image has been blunted somewhat by the simple passage of time and the arrival of even more outspoken personalities like Bella and Ron Dellums. He is now part of a group of anti-war representatives who regularly meet and issue statements together. When he wanted to insure passage of his Lead Poisoning Prevention Act he invited Ted Kennedy to co-sponsor this bill in order to give it sufficient political clout. Fellow congressmen who have watched Ryan for a long time say such sharing of the limelight in order to see a bill passed was not the type of tactic he would have employed in his early years.

But even though the rough edges have been smoothed away a bit, Ryan is still considered a maverick on the Hill. When Bella was first elected to the House Ryan was one of the few congressmen who welcomed her, much to the displeasure of several of his colleagues in the New York delegation who felt Bella was guilty of political opportunism by running against the aging Farbstein. Perhaps the most representative comment about Ryan is one made by a former aide who said, “The trouble with Bill Ryan is he never lets anything slide. He’s always pushing and always ready to sound the alarm. That might make him right on the issues but it doesn’t make a lot of friends down here.”

If the status quo-ers and the male supremacists have been short-changed by Ryan, it’s nothing compared with the rooking the women’s liberation forces are taking from Bella Abzug. While Ms. Abzug advocates a new kind of politics based on the participation of women, blacks, and the young, she has consistently practiced the old-style politics of looking out for number one. Bella can demand and get the backing of the Women’s Political Caucus and claim she should be sent back to Congress because women are under-represented there, but she has failed to support local women candidates in the are in which she is running. When Ross Graham sought to challenge Dick Gottfried in a primary this year, Bella Abzug refused to endorse her because Gottfried had already indicated he would support Bella if she ran for Ryan’s seat. She has also failed to support Natalie Becker, who is running in the 20th for Al Blumenthal’s seat, even though Blumenthal is supporting Ryan. She has not taken a position in Liz Holtzman’s race against Manny Celler in Brooklyn even though Celler single-handedly held up the Equal Rights Amendment for several years.

But Bella’s greatest disservice to the feminists is her grating personality. In an ad for her new book Bella is quoted as saying, “Whether I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, or overbearing you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am — I am a very serious woman.” While most people would consider the first part of that description as devastating, Bella was painting a rosy picture of herself. Certainly she is a very serious woman but she is also abrasive, uncivil, egocentric, vulgar, and inconsiderate. When she was in the process of trying to get the lines for her congressional district changed so she would have a better shot at re-election, she persistently abused the very Democratic leaders who were negotiating with Rocky’s people on her behalf. After she had declared her candidacy she made several late night phone calls to people who indicated they were going with Ryan, violently cursing them for failure to support her.

Those who oppose her are not the only ones Bella lashes out at. Her staff in Washington, with one exception, has turned over completely in the short space of two years. Several people who have worked for her in the past describe the experience as “harrowing.” They talk of how she abuses people, ridicules them in public. One woman went so far as to say, “If the way Bella treated people on the individual basis was extrapolated to a national scale, the world would burn up in 24 hours.”

Private personal faults are not usually germane to a person’s record of public service, yet Bella continually claims to be an “activist” congresswoman and her personal style has a direct effect on the quality of her activism. As one ex-staffer who worked with her in Washington said, “In order to get things done in Congress you have to at least be civil in your dealings with people. Ron Dellums doesn’t ‘go along’ with the system but he doesn’t spit in people’s eyes either. You can’t tell people to go ‘fuck off’ and hang up the phone when they say they’re going against you one day and call them up and ask them to support you on some unpopular ice the next. It just doesn’t work that way.” Her coarse harangues and flip vulgarities, her lack of simple civility, and her fragmented, often demoralized staff have all contributed to the weakening of whatever effectiveness Bella Abzug might have as a leading proponent of women’s rights and a well-known advocate of radical change…

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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