In the vaguely 18th century parlance of House parliamentarians, she is "the gentlewoman from New York." Gentle? It has been some time since the U.S. Congress has seen the likes male or female of Bella Abzug, the freshman from Manhattan's 19th District. Bella is in the eye of the beholder, and like all true originals, she sometimes risks becoming a caricature of herself.
Her partisans know her as a raucously passionate crusader for minority rights, Women's Lib and the antiwar movement, a truculent and courageous woman. To the less friendly, she comes on as a sumo liberal, a lady wrestler, Joan of Arc resurrected as an elemental yenta. No one, friend or enemy, denies that Bella Abzug has a certain presence.
Big Buddies. In her eight months in the House, she has made that presence felt with a characteristic indifference to protocol, notably the tacit understanding that a freshman Congressman ranks slightly above a page boy. It is already part of Capitol Hill mythology that when the courtly House doorkeeper, Mississippian William ("Fish Bait") Miller, asked her not to wear one of her trademark broadbrim hats onto the House floor, she briskly replied, "Go f yourself." Actually, Fish Bait says, the exchange was jocular; they are "big buddies."
For a freshman, she has already had unusual impact in the House, upstaging even Brooklyn's combative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress. During one of her 18-hour days, Bella unearthed from the House rules an old tactic called a resolution of inquiry, which demands action by the House within the startlingly short span of seven days. Invoking that device, she pushed through the proposal that the President be directed to furnish the Pentagon papers to Congress. She succeeded in getting a sex-discrimination amendment added to the Public Works Acceleration Act. It was vetoed by President Nixon, but is now being redrafted with the Abzug amendment intact. In the recent effort to censure CBS President Frank Stanton, Freshman Abzug wedged in among senior members to speak out for freedom of the press. She argues that the U.S. ought to get out of Viet Nam at once and get to work on urgent social needs, including better education and health care.
In her New York City voice that, according to Norman Mailer, "could boil the fat off a taxi driver's neck," Bella complains that "the U.S. House of Representatives has the distinction of being the most unrepresentative body in the
West." Her logic: "Both houses are dominated by a male, white, middleaged, middle-and upper-middle-class power elite that stand with their backs turned to the needs and demands of our people for realistic change."
Rhinoceros Qualities. Bella knows that her abrasive manner grates on her colleagues. As one fastidious member says: "When Bella comes roaring into the cloakroom, mutters a few four-letter words and elbows you out of the way, you want to treat her as you would treat any rude man. But sometimes when she has that hat off, and she is talking about the things she cares about, her face is really pretty."