Frederic Morton: How I Voted Bella


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October 5, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 40

How I voted Bella
by Frederic Morton

A two months’ absence from New York makes you feel, returning, like a virgin again. Again everything shocks. The litter on Broadway, the sooty moist fog rated “Acceptable air,” and the papers that tell you Bill Ryan has been dead for days.

I came back to the knowledge that men die, the very best of them, and that friends fight. The schism that ran all along the Hudson in June parted the very pavements again last week. I voted for Ryan in the primaries. It seemed the only good and just thing to do. But I didn’t push my views in this column nor endorse the cause elsewhere. Partly because I’m not — not yet — a particularly political person or writer. Mostly because I didn’t want to contribute, however inconsequentially, to a civil war between good guys.

But that abstinence too, turned out to be a virginal illusion. The phone was re-connected; the phone rang. I’d forgotten that last year the 67th A.D. had elected me to the Democratic County Committee, an ordinarily forgettable office, which now had to choose a successor to Bill Ryan. Calls came from district leaders to remind me; others called to remind me of other things: the grit, the dirt, the abrasion this city can produce with such abundance, in such disguises, with such virtuosity.

Especially when it comes to Bella. Of course, I agreed with my callers, she should never have run against Bill. Of course Teddy Kennedy should have avoided Chappaquiddick. Yet how many of those whose anti-Bella exclamations I heard (or read) would write off Teddy the way they write off Bella? Of course it would help if Bella would sound and look just a little more like Sandy Dennis or at least Senator Margaret Chase Smith. It’s quite possible that all the resentment that has piled up collectively and cumulatively against the Jewish mother-in-law for the past five generations now furiously converged upon Bella Abzug. And it’s also quite possible — and in phone calls I got quite discernible — that some of the concealed backlash against women’s lib is exploding at the Broad With The Hat, just as a lot of camouflaged nigger-hate vents itself on George McGovern.

As for Priscilla Ryan, I’m sure she’s a wonderful woman because Bill couldn’t marry anybody less. But on six days’ notice I’d no more dream of voting for her than I’d vote for Martin Abzug on six days’ notice. Bill Ryan was a rare man. He’ll remain an inspiring memory. But it’s a little startling to find in Betty Friedan’s Upper West Side a woman applying for a job on her husband’s resume.

That’s what I told some of my callers. Instead of answering they just kept irritating the ear. And Sunday, election day for us County Committee members, began like one long irritation. I went to a brunch with Bella. When I came in she was just being asked what her position really was on Israel; when I left she was asked if she truly supported Israel. No wonder she ate three pastries in between and talked longer and louder and bigger than some of the small questions merited. I walked out and down Riverside Drive into a sweet autumn day. I tell you, a great wicked desire was upon me to play tennis.

Instead I took the subway to the Hotel Commodore. This day I was committed to the political process. I didn’t even go for refreshments at the Hospitality Suites maintained by Jim Scheuer in Room 822 or Priscilla Ryan in Room 724. In those rooms you lounged and drank while being wooed. I went to Room 119 where you stood and sweated and served the political process. Here our 67th A.D. met to fill district vacancies in the County Committee prior to the election meeting in the Grand Ballroom. Here were chairs for a dozen, space for 20, and about 50 of us stepped on each other’s toes, dislocated necks to see the chairman, and tried to judge — with our neighbors’ elbows in our armpits — whether or not Ina Lemmer should replace Juan Braz on the Committee. It was like voting on a mystery on the Seventh Avenue Express with not even straps to hang onto. And the evening had just started.

Our small ordeal segued into a more generous one outside the Grand Ballroom. The doors were to have opened at 7.30, but credentials and vacancies hadn’t been straightened out and for two hours nearly 1000 duly elected sardines perspired against one another in the chairless airless foyer and couldn’t even do any voting with which to kill the time. The woman to my left blew smoke in my face, the guy to the right kept murmuring “I’m Charlie Dorado,” the fellow ahead studied a text on computer languages, and I kept telling myself it was all part of the political process.

At 9.30 the doors finally opened. To what? To the bombastic magnification of motel beige and stucco panelings which is the Commodore Grand Ballroom. To a lot of milling and confusion and bracing for strife unto dawn. We voted on proxies for those who might want to leave before it got too late; on rules to follow in case even the fifth ballot might not be decisive. There was that extra-acrid undertow one feels at the quarrel among relatives. For here you saw them sit together on the closely spaced folding stools, progressive West Siders and Villagers with their McGovern buttons on their blue jeans and their sophisticated consciences, whispering bitterly with their district leaders against each other, with a bitterness that transcended the issue and grew in bewilderment more bitter still. Here we were, we New Yorkers, fighters against the injustice of our culture and ourselves symptoms of its emotional exhaustion.

And over that whole sullen babble tv faked a festiveness, some spotlights brightening a corner as if the Emperor had entered there to the trumpets of the Polonaise and the whole hall were ready to swirl into the first waltz. Actually the cameras pointed at an argument over credentials, two jowly men scowling at each other and blinking at the kliegs. This was, after all, the political process. It came to me: how long has it been since anybody had a ball in this ballroom? And earlier, that two-hour jam-up in the foyer with several hundred people breathing at one another in forced proximity: suddenly it became not the parody of a cocktail party, but the essence of all cocktail parties I’d gone to for the last few years.

“I’m Charlie Dorado,” a guy muttered, strolling through the aisle. Two huge men hustled out a third on whom they had a half-nelson on each side. The black man chairing the scene tried to get it going and no committee-person sitting near me knew his name or his regular political function. When Bella Abzug was nominated I heard along with the applause boos as if Agnew were being praised. Priscilla Ryan didn’t get by without a hiss and cackle. That too appeared to be part of the political process.

And then it all changed.

The votes were announced, district by district, by the leaders. The room changed in ways hard to pinpoint. Quite early the Abzug vote was much heavier and more conclusive than expected. That naturally was a lift for those of us who favored her; naturally it’d be good to break up by midnight and do some celebrating in Chinatown. But the change went beyond that. The chandelier, enormous bronze trashcan lids, appeared to turn crystal. Jerry Kretchmer shucked off his coat and stood there in the magnificent pink of his shirt. The district leaders, announcing their figures, sneaked little jokes into the microphones. In the row before me a fellow with a red beard not only recorded but added up the votes and suddenly stopped getting mad though 50 of us breathed down his neck. The whole benighted hall with its cigarette smoke, its crushed dixie cups, its trampled-upon tempers, started to shake the blues. Despite all the chaos and discomfort our night was gathering itself up fast to a firm decision. When the 73rd District announced 48 more votes for Bella she went over the top. Somewhere a dam broke. Applause clattered but suddenly and however transiently, there were smiles on nearly all lips. “I’M CHARLIE DORADO!” the same guy shouted with manic exuberance from the balcony. A woman with a Ryan button hugged a woman with a “Bella!” button for less than a second. Then the Ryan woman ran toward the door with wet eyes just as Bella herself entered, also with wet eyes.

“Did you see that?” the kissed woman said to me and pointed not at Bella but the receding Ryan woman. “Did you see that!”

I saw it. I don’t’ know whether it was sentimental or significant or both. But I know that for a minute at least politics became something better than a respectable and institutional outlet for man’s ability to hate himself. That minute suspended vengeance, spite, envy — poisons the system breeds in its reformers no less than in its stalwarts, and by which the system survives the fratricide of its critics. During that minute it seemed as if you could depose the Bourbons without raising a Robespierre; in that minute it didn’t even seem to matter that somebody named Bella had received more votes than somebody named Priscilla. It mattered that the street had come together, ready to take another bastion from the board room. It was quite a minute in the Commodore Ballroom.

True, within the hour Mrs. Ryan, hard and handsome, announced for the Liberal nomination and thus set political history into a more orthodox course. But it’s the minute I like to remember.

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