They had just cut into the chocolate birthday cake, the one shaped like a TV set with "Happy 45th, Jerry" written on the screen, when Jody Powell burst into Jerry Rafshoon's office.
Powell was clutching a four-page news release, and he was angry.
He pulled Hamilton Jordan aside. "Jesus Christ! Did you see this thing?" he asked. And he showed it to Jordan and then they were angry together.
Rafshoon joined them and he read the document and then he was angry, too.
Bella Abzug has got to go, they decided in just a matter of minutes, as the party bubbled on around them. They reread the news release and got angry all over again. It was Thursday evening.
FOR RELEASE, FRIDAY, JANUARY 12, 3 P.M. PRESIDENT CARTER CHALLENGED ON SOCIAL PRIORITIES BY NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE FOR WOMEN .
In its first meeting today with President Carter, the National Advisory Committee for Women, fulfilling its mandate to advise him on initiatives promoting equality for women, warned that the administration's anti-inflation program will impose aditional burdens upon women in increased unemployment, cutbacks in social programs, postponement of comprehensive national health insurance ...
The news release had been written in advance of the women's committee meeting with Carter, and Powell had gotten a copy of it from a source in the Labor Department, where the committee has its offices.
The case of Bella Abzug, the hiring and the firing, offers a significant view of how power flows in the Carter White House nd how politics is practiced there.
Jordan, Rafshoon and Powell had come quickly to the view that Bella Abzug should be fired. It was not, for them, a hard position to reach. There is nothing much likeable about Bella Abzug. She is pushy, New Yorky, a chronic attacker of power, and now she was using her presidentially appointed position to attack the boss. They came to look forward with anticipation to the sacking of Abzug.
"A fun story," Rafshoon would call it, according to some reporters. And Jordan at one point chuckled over the anticipation of a confrontation with the heavy-set woman with her ever-present hat.
But the initial reaction of the three senior advisers to the news release Thursday night was anger. And so they agreed to met the next morning with other senior staff members, to make sure that they still wanted to do this and to decide just how it should be done.
Meanwhile, in the executive mansion, President Carter was spending a quiet evening at home Thursday, aware that he was due to meet with the women's committee the next day but unaware that his presidency was about to be plunged into one more controversy.
Carter had not wanted to hire Bella Abzug in the first place. His wife, Rosalynn, had counseled strongly against it all along, saying that Abzug would prove more of a liability than an asset. And Carter leaned that way.
But a delegation of three persuaded the president to change his mind. Jody Powell, presidential adviser Anne Wexler and domestic chief Stuart Eizenstat had gone first to Mrs. Carter and then to the president to urge Abzug's appointment.
"I kind of thought she deserved it," Powell says, acknowledging that he had originally pushed Abzug for the women's committee job."And frankly, I thought her presence and her name were not an unmixed blessing, politically." Wexler also said she felt that Abzug had demonstrated a position of leadership in her fight for women's issues at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, the one that nominated Carter.
The president yielded.
Abzug got the presidential appointment. But she never really got the respect of the president's people. She was always suspect. In November, the women's committee abruptly canceled their meeting with the president, angered because they had been allotted only 15 minutes.
"That's typical of Bella Abzug," one senior Carter official exclaimed at the time. And this past weekend, in the wake of -- and for some of them, the elation of -- the firing, Abzug was blamed by a number of the senior staffers for having embarrassed Carter by engineering the canceling of that November meeting.
They said they were not aware that Abzug had, in fact, opposed that cancellation -- that it had been done in her absence and she had tried to get the committee to reconsider it. But Carter's White House adviser on women's affairs, Sarah Weddington, knew of Abzug's efforts and has contended that she tried to make Abzug's positive role in the affiar known to the senior Carter staff members at the time.
As the Carter advisers see the affair, it is nobel that Weddington would have done anything to defend Bella back then. For, they say, Abzug had been busy knifing Weddington in the back, and when she wasn't doing that, she was snubbing her.
(Example: When Weddington had offered to meet with the women's committee as a prelude to the November presidential meeting, she got a letter back saying the committee members were too busy. Period.)
At the Carter White House, women's committee co-chair Abzug was, months ago, already a most unpopular person.
At 8:30 a.m. Friday, the Carter inner circle pulled itself up to the long conference table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Jordan, Powell, Wexler, Eizenstat, Weddington and Vice President Mondale's top aide, Richard Moe, were there.
They studied the advance news release and were as angry as Jordan, Powell and Rafshoon had been the night before. Abzug must be fired, all agreed. There was little debate about that. There would be some political repercussions from the far left of the women's movement, but they viewed the sacking of Abzug as an overall political plus.
Most women will cheer the firing of Bella Abzug, they felt. She does not represent their thinking. Some suggested that Carter would look strong and decisive in firing Abzug. But this led to the question: how should it be done?
Carter was to meet with the women's committee that afternoon. So the senior staff members concluded that there were three options:
Abzug should be called in privately and fired before the meeting. But this would result in either the meeting's being canceled in anger by the women's committee for a second time, or by having the meeting continue but degenerate into attacks on the president over the firing.
The meeting could be canceled by the White House, and Abzug could be fired privately. Powell was one who favored this. But others argued that it would be unfair to cancel the meeting when many members came from out of town to attend.
Carter could preside at the meeting and Abzug could then be called into Jordan's office and told to resign or she would be fired.
The senior staff opted to go the modified limited hangout route, and settled on the third plan.
The meeting adjourned. And at about 9:30 a.m., according to one senior staffer, President Carter found out what was going on. Powell and Jordan entered the Oval Office, and Powell showed Carter a copy of the news release. Carter read in silence. Powell told Carter the recommendation of the senior staff. He said it was unanimous. Carter agreed. And it was done.
"The president's attitude was basically that he'd told us in the beginning this would happen," Powell recalled.
The president was probably right. For Bella Abzug acted on the inside as a presidential appointee no differently than she had acted on the outside all of her public life. Hers is the politics of attack. And the White House could not permit that from within.
More than anything else, Bella was fired for being Abzug.
Epilogue: On the day of the firing, Rafshoon, Jordan and company were decidedly up. What they were about to do was good politics. And somehow, it was personally satisfying. One toplevel assistant offered an explanation:
"It's very frustrating around here," he said. "You get kicked from all sides and there's not much you can do to get back.But suddenly this was something that could be done -- swiftly, decisively -- to take care of someone who was really sticking it to us."