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Bella Abzug

A twinkling Rep. Bella Abzug in 1976.
A twinkling Rep. Bella Abzug in 1976. (Copyright 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008; Page C01

The last in a week-long series in which Washington Post writers examine particular photos from the show "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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I worked for Bella Abzug for one day.

It was 1986, and Bella was in the throes of a comeback (and ultimately unsuccessful) U.S. congressional campaign in Westchester County. I was hired to be her "body man," to Velcro myself to the candidate and see to her every need, from a whispered reminder of whose hand she's shaking to fetching her dry cleaning.

It didn't work out. So I joined Bella's legion of former staffers, alienated or finally exhausted by her notorious impatience, temper and verbal strafings. (And I had it easy: She once called to apologize to an aide after punching him during a scheduling contretemps: "Michael . . . How's your kidney?")

This portrait reminds me of what a privilege I had in that baptism by ire. The Bella in Avedon's photograph, created with his trademark austerity and frontal candor, expresses her inner core just as deeply as the more ambivalent and anxious images of the mostly male politicians who surround her. As a 13-year-old in the Bronx, she defiantly said kaddish (traditionally a male-only rite) for her late father. As a budding activist, she organized with other women against strontium 90 in milk. She put herself in personal danger by going to Mississippi to work for civil rights, then served in Congress as one of its most powerful members for three terms in the 1970s.

It's ironic but fitting that Bella's picture was included in a series about power; shortly after Avedon took it, she would lose her run for the U.S. Senate, and Jimmy Carter, who hovers nearby in the same series, would fire her from the Presidential Advisory Committee on Women for having the chutzpah to suggest that the economy and foreign policy were women's issues. But her power never derived from patriarchy or party, however skillfully she navigated those institutions. Rather, it emanated from her as a life force with a restless, ever more global impulse to connect with people -- men and women -- who shared her vision of equality, justice and sustainability.

I like this image of Bella because it's as subversive as the woman herself: It gives the lie to the gruff, cranky broad who would come to be known, whether with affection or withering contempt, as Battling Bella. Of course, she did battle. But this improbably lyrical portrait, which captures both her flinty gaze and twinkling humor, testifies to the essential fact about Bella: Even at her angriest, she was always propelled by a fiercely loving, implacable joy.

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