Once a Leader in the National Organization for Women and a Voice for Gay-Lesbian Rights, Today the Former Talk-Show Host Is Politically Homeless--Though You Wouldn't Know It From the Hugs She's Giving David Horowitz, Larry Elder and Other Conservatives.
LA Times Magazine
June 02, 2002
Had Tammy Bruce been
with Sherman on his march, it would have been Georgians, not the general, who would have said, "War is hell." As former head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, Bruce was a true believer who spent the first half of the '90s raising hell locally and nationally. She organized the marches, licked the stamps and harangued the politicians for women's and gay rights. She was a media personality whose outspoken views were broadcast widely on a talk show on L.A. station KFI, one of the few radio commentators representing the progressive movement.
Her most notable undertaking was in trying to make life miserable for O.J. Simpson following his 1995 acquittal. Bruce and her followers kicked up clouds of media dust with condemnations that loudly named Simpson the archvillain of domestic violence because he had abused his murdered ex-wife, Nicole.
Today, Bruce stands on the outside, fired from her radio job, a non-person to the NOW power structure and in some gay-lesbian activist circles, close to being labeled a racist, even--this is the cruelest cut--a conservative. What changed? Not her, she says.
Tammy Bruce blends into the smart-set camouflage of the mid-Wilshire neighborhood where she shares a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. She is 39, slim and mod, and she worries about her weight. She is also a penny-pinching May graduate from USC, where she was on full scholarship while earning her B.A. in political science.
Seems strange that this well-known activist is just getting her degree at a time when some of her peers are starting to check 401(k)s and thinking of early retirement. That's because she entered life's race from a standing start--she grew up poor, a "Northridge street kid," a girl who never knew her father and seldom saw her mom. Her mother, now deceased, worked as a store clerk, and dad was . . . somewhere. She never saw his face and doesn't even know his name. If she had gotten into drugs at 15 and become a wasted life at 18, no social worker would have blinked. However, what saved her was a quick mind and strong constitution. So, in 1990, as a proud lesbian in her late 20s, she emerged from a series of minor public relations jobs to become perhaps the highest-profile woman in L.A., if only for a brief time.
On a recent Saturday evening, Bruce drives north on the Pacific Coast Highway, headed to the Malibu home of neoconservative activist and writer David Horowitz. He is a man just as flinty-eyed for his cause as she ever was for hers. Nestled in her bag is a gift-wrapped Waterford pen for Horowitz, who is celebrating his 63rd birthday.
Horowitz has met her only twice, but he greets her as though she were the only surviving Goldwater voter. He accepts the gift and hugs her. In years past, these two would have frisked each other before shaking hands, but it's different tonight. The reason is Bruce's recently published book, which gives calamitous voice to her smoldering grievances with the "New Left," as she characterizes the feminist, gay and black civil rights organizations with which she is now feuding.
Her conflicts arose from her vociferous opinion about Simpson, then culminated with her defense of talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger when the psychologist was attacked for allegedly being a homophobe. Bruce's book, "The New Thought Police," has left many of her former liberal cohorts gasping and fuming. Bruce is at Horowitz's tonight to check out the other side, to test the truth of the old saying: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. She's also trying to fill a void. "Because I never had a father, I guess I'm always looking for family, wanting to find where I belong. Is that a weakness? I believe I'm destined to be alone politically, but I keep hoping there's someplace where there can be differences without it being dangerous."
Horowitz's airy living room is windowed for the ocean view, and it's starting to fill up with what will become a group of about 40. Bruce soon encounters KABC talk-show host Larry Elder, a libertarian black man known to have his own group-identity spats. He is friendly, bright and at ease here. When he sees Bruce, whom he has met before, he smiles. He busses her on the cheek, then says impishly, "Girl, give me one night--just one night--and I'll turn you around."
Bruce smiles and blushes. "What do I tell my girlfriend?" she asks, a little at a loss for words.
This is a heaven-sent response for the quick-witted Elder. "Bring her along!" he says, with a booming laugh.
Two or three people are idly listening. Joking or not, if this were most feminist or gay groups, Elder would have just committed a gross impropriety. These listeners, however, chuckle without taking offense and meander toward the food table.
Bruce and Elder argue lightly about a political point of little consequence. She finally moves toward other people, doing the party thing. These are political junkies. There is no aimless chatter about how the Dodgers will do this year and isn't the sunset pretty? Psychotherapist Palma Morgan approaches. "I'm a conservative, but I just want you to know how much I admire you as a strong, open woman," she says, then asks, "Can I get a hug?"
Later, Bruce is looking over her napkin-wrapped glass at David Dreier, a conservative Republican congressman from San Dimas. Their conversation morphs into an easy discussion of American attitudes on the gay movement. Then Bruce bluntly offers an observation that makes Dreier blanch: "A majority of gays, I believe, have their first sexual experience as a minor with a gay adult, and almost every gay and lesbian knows that's true. We need to be willing to address that."
I am holding a tape recorder in front of Bruce, and I'm thinking: "Do you have any idea how this will look in print?"
Dreier, an unflappable politician, switches the topic smoothly, as if Bruce hasn't just revealed the topography of her public career. Her landscape is marred by one obstruction, and it bears the name Candor. This is a woman who does not seek to shock, outrage, or even convert. She simply has a visceral need to speak her mind. Not rudely, but plainly, and the trouble it has caused her is a reminder of why more cautious public figures trust plain talk about as much as a grouchy Rottweiler. It also explains why she ardently believes that oppressive "political correctness" of the left threatens the goals of feminists and gays.
What happened to so disillusion one of Los Angeles' most strident left-wingers that she is flirting with her erstwhile opposites? The reason may lie in changes in American politics. It used to be the differences between conservative and liberal were determined by definitive policy issues: minimum wage, the size of government, welfare, foreign aid. Today, the parties still clash, but they fight mainly to see who can best straddle the middle. Most political street brawling is done by pressure groups and single-cause activists. And it can get rough.
Bruce's first problem roiled up in 1995, during her sixth year as president of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW. When the Simpson trial ended that October, she saw a chance to redirect the anger against him to awareness about domestic violence. Her press releases, vigils and marches generated national attention, but also indignant resistance from an unexpected source--her own organization. It led to her being denounced and ostracized by the national NOW leadership.
Patricia Ireland sighs wearily over the telephone at the mention of Bruce's name. Ireland, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former national NOW president, says the organization became angry with Bruce after black women and civil rights groups had objected to a feminist leader focusing on violence against women while minimizing the issue of race. NOW's national board censured Bruce in December, 1995, citing her for making racially insensitive statements.
"People were upset because they had worked to rid themselves of the image of being a white women's group who cared only about white women's issues," Ireland says. In a resolution that December, the group said, "NOW recognizes that women of color are often put in the unfair position of being told to choose between their allegiance to their communities of color or to the feminist community."
The discomfort over race at NOW made sense to Elaine Lafferty, who covered the dispute for Time magazine. "For a white organization, the charge of racism is paralyzing," Lafferty says. "They will do almost anything to avoid that. Also, NOW at that time had the mentality--'All in favor, say "aye;" all opposed, say "goodbye." ' "
It didn't help that the problem, from NOW's perspective, was a family fight that became public. "That makes it worse because of the embarrassment," says Libertarian lesbian columnist Norah Vincent. "Then it becomes betrayal, because she was both a feminist and a lesbian. When your opponent is from within, that's an incredible threat."
Bruce doesn't deny that she brushed aside racial factors during the O.J. fight. "Race issues are not at the very top of my list. What I worry about are women. That's what makes me a feminist. There are a number of organizations worrying about black men, and there should be. However, I'm not going to apologize for my focus, any more than the NAACP is going to apologize for not being more feminist."
She rolls her eyes when asked about the clashing allegiances felt by black women at the time. "What part of feminism clashes with 'communities of color'? That is just so patronizing. I'm sure the typical black or Latino woman on the street would agree that she needs control over her body, to earn a fair living and not to be physically abused."
Even if Bruce and NOW saw those issues the same way, however, friction would be inevitable, because the differences in style are vast. If Bruce were in the Mafia, she'd be assigned all the hits. When she commits to a cause, she rides it full speed over rough ground. But the hierarchy of NOW prides itself on harnessed and strategic pacing. "Tammy takes it to the extreme," says longtime Los Angeles feminist and lesbian activist Robin Tyler. "Whenever there's a problem, she looks for an extreme solution."
It's a trait that her former colleague at KFI, Bill Handel, himself an on-air tongue-lashing ready to happen, says is "probably why she was such a good radio personality." But it's also one that makes the comfort index plunge, along with job security. As Vincent says, Bruce is not one "to tiptoe around, and that can always bite you in the butt, as it did her."
Ireland says simply that Bruce "is not constituted to work in an organization. She's a lone ranger. I think she is, at the core, a good person, but I also think she's a wild woman."
To which Bruce snorts and answers, "What NOW needs is more wild women and fewer lawyers."
Other differences in style were at work, too, ones that were more subtle if equally important. Richard Dekmejian, a professor of political science at USC who knows Bruce well and finds her brilliant--"PhD quality"--says she doesn't fit the stylistic mold of many refined activists. "Have you noticed? She's always wearing blue jeans," he says. "The elite in her organization are far more fashionably dressed.
"She fits the 'marginal man' theory: a person who is not of the mainstream of whatever culture he's a part of," Dekmejian continues. "In a lot of ways--social background, family, schooling--for a white person, she's as declasse as you can think of. That made her vulnerable, and 'not really one of us.' "
Bruce parted with the left again when she defended radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger against attack by feminists and activist gays, especially the national Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. They accused Schlessinger of making homophobic statements on her popular show and launched a successful campaign to force cancellation of her new television program. Bruce rallied behind Schlessinger, despite their vastly different political views. She accused Schlessinger's opponents of taking protest beyond acceptable limits by trying to inhibit her ability to make a living.
Bruce's own radio career exploded in 1998 following another accusation of racial insensitivity. After Ennis Cosby, the son of entertainer Bill Cosby, was murdered by a Ukrainian immigrant in a Westside neighborhood while standing alongside his Mercedes, his mother, Camille Cosby, wrote an opinion piece in USA Today headlined, "America taught my son's killer to hate blacks." Bruce was offended that a woman of great wealth would accuse the whole nation of racism, and she upbraided Cosby on her program. Bruce's point was that "she was tired of black America crying racism every time something goes wrong," says Jill Stewart, a columnist for the New Times in Los Angeles. "But to say that is completely against leftist orthodoxy."
But Bruce couldn't stop there. She also threw in gratuitous remarks about Bill Cosby's alleged infidelity. The station made an apology on air that was not delivered by Bruce. In fact, she never went on the air again at the station.
When discussing the public issues that have dominated her life, Bruce's mind becomes a high-torque engine. When it's in gear, she hears only the chugging of pistons and pushes all else aside. So late on a day when she's in a car, heavy into conversation, and it becomes time to eat, her idea is, "Fine. Here's a Shakey's." Once settled into the wooden booth, she barely glances at a slice of pepperoni next to her salad. She resents implications that she is a traitor and insists that her progressive credentials are quite in order. She lists the things she believes in--and they are virtually identical to the positions of the progressive feminists and gays she is on the outs with. So why isn't a reconciliation possible?
"Because they've turned our revolution into their own posh jobs. NOW, especially, has become a bureaucracy with hardening of the arteries. When you occupy a suite of offices in Washington for year after year, you lose sight of the grass roots. You find local activism threatening because it's so different from your own protected world."
Bruce finishes the pizza slice and eyes a second, but keeps talking. "The status quo becomes important because you are the status. It's all about who you associate with, because that sends the message of who you are or are not. It's a matter of who you have cocktails with." She grins. "I don't drink very often, which probably explains why I'm in trouble so much."
She believes that progressive groups underestimate the willingness of most people to support the aims of women and gays. "Americans are sensitive to fairness, but they want to be sold by someone who reaches out to them. NOW uses the right words of inclusion, but the body language is one of distrust for 'outsiders.' Many of them think traditional white males are eye-level to an earthworm."
Bruce believes gays need to communicate that they are mainly "two-car-garage folks." As clear as she is about her politics, romance has played hide-and-seek with her, and she is currently unattached. One relationship years ago ended with the suicide of her partner, and when she was fired by KFI, she was also dumped by the woman with whom she was living. (My fault, she says with a rueful laugh, "for choosing badly.")
She surrenders to the second piece of pizza, then turns the subject to her favorite demon. Those who remember her radio show would recognize how her voice cracks slightly as it rises. "The left is in control of our political culture. They have thoroughly intimidated the media. As a gay woman, I'm pleased that Ellen had a TV show, but you'll absolutely never see a TV show about a woman who's an anti-abortion Christian. It will not happen, even though there are more of those people in the country than gay people."
She pauses and chuckles. "Of course, I wouldn't watch it." The smile abruptly disappears. "Political correctness is just another form of fundamentalism. NOW and some of the New Left have become intolerant and bullying enough to drive Jerry Falwell back to bigotry school."
Bruce has been largely ignored by the left since losing her platforms at KFI and with NOW, but mention her beliefs in those political circles and it's clear she remains an irritant. Liberal columnist Robert Scheer says of Bruce's complaints: "The PC charge is the neoconservatives' way of intimidating people from making fair and legitimate criticisms. "What is this 'New Left,' anyway?" Scheer continues. "Do they meet on Thursdays? I can't remember the last time I met someone on the left who wanted to curtail debate. If her original argument was that there was a double standard about O.J., then that's valid for her. But to extrapolate from that to this whole, broad, sweeping critique, I think is silly."
Bruce realizes she is persona non grata to liberal groups, and every time she looks at her checkbook, she realizes she has paid a price. She's starting a second book about moral relativism, and she wants to get back into talk radio or TV commentary. But what if that doesn't work? She's just graduated from college, she's nearing middle age, she's still searching for her place in the world. But she's adamant that she's not interested in signing up for any special interest group or political party. "The last thing a pressure group needs is an independent thinker," she says, her soprano voice rising. "They wouldn't want me, and I no longer need them."
What she does know, she says, is what she believes: "I am what feminism set out to achieve. I'm an independent gay woman who acts and thinks for herself, and--Lord knows--speaks her mind. I believe that what I am is OK, even though it may be different from you. All I want is for us to be free to talk about it, and maybe even argue about it."
* Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine on the muder conviction of Joseph Luna