THERE WAS SOMETHING so poor about the way the Carter administration handled the Abzug affair that it all becomes very suspicious. It is hard to believe the adminstration would be so naive and irrational as to savage Bella Abzug the way it did. Jimmy Carter, Mr. Candor himself, sat through a meeting with Abzug and other members of the Advisory Committee on Women, knowing that as soon as the meeting was over he was going to throw her to the wolves. That kind of hypocrisy is enough to make your stomach turn.
Surely, you think, there was more to it. But apparently there was not. Interviews with top administration women and leaders within the women's movement indicate that administration officials could not get along with Abzug; they didn't like her style; they didn't like her lecturing, her confrontations; they didn't like her rhetoric, and they wanted the advisory committee to be headed by someone with whom they could deal.
Abzug and the administration had a personality conflict. No matter that she didn't vote with the committee to cancel its Nov. 22 meeting with Carter -- a move designed to embarrass him. No matter that she had nothing to do with the press release the committee issued after its meeting with Carter last Friday. It was lecturing and argumentative. It was demanding and warning. It was confrontational. It sounded like Bella. It was the final straw in a relationship that never should have existed. It was a relationship that might not have been established had the Carter administration taken women's issues more seriously at the outset, and given more thought to the women whom the administration appointed.
But this is an administration that appointed as its top adviser on women's issues Midge Costanza, a woman who was never on the inside at the White House and who never had a chance of being included in the inner circle. Her appointment virtually consigned women's issues to the periphery and she did nothing to improve the situation.
On the contrary, Costanza rapidly developed the reputation among women's groups of being illprepared for meetings, not being savvy on issues, of compounding these shortcomings by blaming her staff and by an abrasiveness that offended people inside the White House and out. She was a token.
There was an almost general sigh of relief among women's groups when she was fired. Not so with Abzug. There is an important difference between these two women, a difference the carter White House obviously doesn't understand. Bella Abzug, far more than Costanza, is a symbol for women. She is competent, savvy about the issues, she speaks well, she has a sense of humor. She can laugh at herself. She's tough fighter, often uncompromising, and she was a winner when there weren't very many women winning anything. She is loud and abrasive and she's forever trying to steal the show, but she is Bella.
Two top women in the administration who support the Abzug dismissal and who spoke for background, described the way it was handled as "awful." "There are so many women in this administration who love Bella," said one of them.
Obviously, it was a mistake to appoint Abzug to the committee in the first place. Both she and the White House have suffered. She has had to weather the indignity of having her personality faults dragged out once again.
And the Carter White House is suffering because once again all its personality faults are being exposed. We were seeing top White House aides running around alerting reporters to stick around last Friday, that there was a "fun" story coming down.
A political appointee being fired is hardly a "fun" story, and for top White House aides to act so gleeful about such an event smacks of cruelty and immaturity, not to mention political naivete. Women's groups who have fought in the past are united on this one They are rallying around Abzug, and there is a noting gaining currency that the Carter administration behaved so badly, that it insulted Abzug and women in general so badly on this one, that they owe women one. They better come through on something big for women.
And yet, that might have been what Carter was trying to do all along. Overlooked in all the tempest is the fact that Abzug and her committee, for whatever reasons, were unable to communicate effectively with the White House. The committee was supposed to work with the Intradepartmental Task Force on Women and yet it did not. It met a couple of times with Sarah Weddington, head of the task force and Carter's top adviser in women's issues and on another occasion the comittee wrote her that no, it did not have time on its agenda to meet with her.
The committee had access that it didn't use, a sympathetic ear that it ignored. There were efforts to undercut Weddington and to go around her and that simply doesn't make sense. Unlike Costanza, she has access to the Carter inner circle, She can talk about women's issues and have the men in the administration pay attention. She is not frozen out. Neither is presidential assistant Anne Wexler.
What has happened, finally, is that the Carter White House has hired women it is taking seriously. It seems to be listening to them. It was not listening to Abzug and Costanza and the advisory committee, which until this past week was rather obscure. Carter wrote Abzug that he could work better with the committee if it had new leadership. Clearly, he doesn't want confrontation. He wants advice.
The way it was done was unquestionably wrong, but the fact that the firing occurred signals that the White House wants a citizens' advisory committee on women that it can listen to. This may signal that the White House finally is going to take women's issues seriously.