A Radical Move : Margery Tabankin Has Fled the Center of Power for the Center of Status, but Without Missing an Activist Beat

Times Staff Writer

Inside the elegant house nestled into the bucolic hills of Brentwood, a slide show is just finishing. Seventy-five well-dressed, well-heeled guests, their glasses of wine and Perrier within arm’s reach, their beepers turned temporarily to “off,” sit transfixed as China expert Orville Schell shows them the massacre in Tian An Men Square.

Sitting in a prime location on a chintz-covered sofa is Margery Tabankin. As the pictures flash onto the screen, her face registers an equally fleeting spectrum of emotions--wistfulness to outrage, pain to resignation.

But when the lights come on again, her composure is complete, her charm in force, her cheerfulness ready for the next half-hour of networking as befits the newly installed executive director of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, which is co-hosting the lecture. Holding court in a corner of the living room, she smiles as a group of people vie for her attention, including a producer known for his movies on liberal causes.

“I keep hearing about you,” he says approvingly.


“We have to get together,” Tabankin nods warmly.

With that, Tabankin turns to the journalist at her side and whispers, half-jokingly, half-seriously, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

She’s not. But the reason she thinks so is because of the tumultuous events of recent months. The Exxon oil spill in March. Her trip to Palestinian refugee camps in May. The tragedy in China in June. The Supreme Court decision on abortion last month.

They are all new material for the slide show that runs every night in her dreamscape.

“I still see pictures in my mind of the children I saw in orphanages in Honduras. I will never forget the sight of mass graves I saw in El Salvador. I think of the mine workers I’ve seen suffering from black lung disease. I remember the kids in college I put through the underground railroad to get hopefully safe abortions,” she explains.

“It’s real hard to put the brakes on things like that. It’s real easy to just think about living near the beach and making a nice income and putting on a fund-raiser or two. But not when you go to sleep and see real pictures of real life in your brain.”

The fact is that her newly acquired California tan and laid-back manner aren’t fooling anyone. Clearly, Tabankin is as possessed by political activism as the day she fled Washington six months ago--sick, out of sorts and starved for a change. And she is now bringing that passion to the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, which needed an infusion of credibility from a credentialed liberal like Tabankin.

Her resume reads like a textbook of major leftist causes from the early 1960s to the present. She is included in such chronicles of social change as Stanley Sheinbaum’s anthology of activism, “New Perspectives,” and Myra McPherson’s book, “Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation.” Barbra Streisand calls her “one of the smartest women I know.” Jane Fonda describes her as “a national treasure.” Peter Yarrow refers to her as the “fourth” member of Peter, Paul and Mary.

But Tabankin would be obsessed by current events no matter which side of the issues she was on--pro-war or anti-war, anti-abortion or pro-choice, pro-Contra or anti-Contra. And, like other activists, she is motivated to spend her life in an endless series of campaigns--some winnable, more not--because she feels the issues more passionately than others and therefore can’t be content with only part-time caring. As lifelong friend Tom Hayden reflects almost enviously, “Marge is part of a whole group of people that tried to invent activism as a permanent way of life. And she’s succeeded.”

But it’s also taken a heavy personal toll. For Tabankin, the price she has paid for her participation on the front lines of social change has been her health.

It began as a common cold that October, 1987, when Tabankin was one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes women in leftist politics in this country. A one-time nationally known campus radical during the ‘60s, first woman president of the National Student Assn., and head of VISTA during the Carter Administration, she was directing two high-profile progressive philanthropies--the ARCA Foundation, which relied on the R. J. Reynolds family fortune, and the Barbra Streisand Foundation, which the singer created in 1986.

But she also was shuttling between Washington and Los Angeles, divorced, 40, living alone, working 16- and 18-hour days (“whatever it took to get something done right--the way I decided was right”), eating badly, and worrying about all the causes in the world except the one closest to home--herself.

“I remember waking up that morning with a cold, getting on an airplane for Los Angeles for a meeting of the Streisand Foundation’s advisory board, and staying sick for almost a year,” she says. She had never had any major illnesses before. Suddenly, she had a sore throat, swollen glands, achy muscles, borderline fever and overwhelming, all-consuming exhaustion.

Months dragged by before doctors diagnosed her mystery ailment as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and told her they probably couldn’t cure it. “You just have to wait it out,” they advised.

So she waited. And waited. And wondered if she’d ever get well.

‘Feeling Exhausted’

“I knew I didn’t have cancer or AIDS or something deathly ill, so I wasn’t in a crisis facing my mortality,” she recalls. “But I did have to deal with how could I still be a productive person feeling this exhausted all the time. It was like a stopping of my life.”

Recalls civil rights leader and good friend Roger Wilkins: “She’d just say she was tired, and she was low, and all of a sudden she disappeared.”

She tried to use the time constructively and figure out where she had gone wrong to get so ill. “I really did a lot of thinking about burnout and the need to find a balance between being healthy and believing in a political agenda that I really feel is my mission in life. And I knew I wanted to be able to be in there for the long haul.”

She began to realize the things she’d done to abuse herself. Not drugs or alcohol. Work.

“My life in Washington consisted of 20 years of political networks and relationships that were always in a state of crisis. And I was not very good at setting limits. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.”

So, true to form, the radical was ready for a radical change. She looked around and realized that she had the biggest number of friends living in Los Angeles--Hayden and Fonda, actors Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares, liberal guru Stanley Sheinbaum, producer Norman Lear.

“For years, they’d been saying, ‘Why don’t you come to California.’ And I felt inside me I was ready for a change. Plus, it made sense to go somewhere where I had a support system.”

Politically speaking (and she always does), Los Angeles was a “natural fit.” So when last December songwriter-producer-activist Marilyn Bergman and other founding members of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee (HWPC) asked her to take over the directorship of the organization, she said yes and started in March. Staying on with the Streisand Foundation, she is setting the HWPC’s goals, organizing its forums and educating its 200 invitation-only members who pay $1,500 each for the privilege of having Tabankin lead them.

Where has she taken them so far? Mostly to the forefront of the keep-abortion-legal movement. On April 9, she brought 250 entertainment notables, including 50 Triple-A stars, to the Pro-Choice March in Washington where the press had a feeding frenzy. She has arranged for 18 speakers on subjects ranging from the Valdez oil spill to an evening with Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown on the future of the Democratic Party. And she has set up the Hollywood Policy Center, a non-profit tax-exempt organization funded by the HWPC to promote activism in the entertainment industry.

And yet, people still wonder why she’s here. As producer-writer Joan Marks confides at the Brentwood lecture while Tabankin is out of earshot, “The question is why would she leave Washington,” a sweep of her arm taking in the room full of Hollywood elite, “for this .”

Political Savvy

Hayden, whose own ambitions to go to Washington have never been disguised, says it didn’t surprise him. “True, she left the center of power for the center of status. But there’s an interchangeability between West L.A. and Dupont Circle. She brings here a savvy understanding of Washington which Hollywood sorely needs. And she also implicitly stands for the message that living inside the Beltway is not Nirvana.”

Liberal guru Stanley Sheinbaum laughs at the question. “Can Marge Tabankin find happiness in Los Angeles? If she’s to be happy in L.A., then she has to be effective. And that depends on the level of interest by these people in just the glitz or the issues themselves. But the answer may be that the challenge is lower out here and she’ll find a sort of respite.”

But is she taking it easy? Hardly, judging from the breakneck speed at which she spends her workdays. But if she works late into the night, she doesn’t bother to come in early the next day. She recently spent a week at Jane Fonda’s Laurel Springs Retreat to learn to eat, exercise and relax better. And on weekends she likes to take long drives up the coast to Ojai and just enjoy the beauty of her adopted state.

“I’m in a good space right now,” she says confidently.

There are those people, of course, who argue that Tabankin’s illness might have been of her own making and who see not only her leftist causes but also her obsessive commitment as hopelessly dated. David Horowitz, co-author of “Destructive Generation,” about his transformation from a ‘60s radical to an ‘80s arch-conservative, does not know Tabankin personally, but claims to know her type--"people who haven’t grown up.”

To Horowitz, activists like Tabankin thrive on an “us-against-the-world” mentality, creating for themselves a “closed community, full of the arrogance of being both self-righteous and self-serving. Because the left is like a powerful drug in that you really feel good about yourself because you think you’re saving the world and you think you’re better than anyone else. And as with any messianic mentality, you also always feel embattled.”

But those who know Tabankin well believe she was drawn to the activist life out of deeply personal reasons. As Mike Farrell, Tabankin’s closest friend on the West Coast, maintains: “Margie has a real need to connect on a level that says, ‘I matter, and what I do matters,’ because that wasn’t available to her from a family point of view. So she made that step which propels her to do it on a level that’s community or nationally oriented.” It’s said that activists aren’t born; they’re made.

If so, then Tabankin’s political career dates back to 1947 when she was conceived in tragedy. Her 18-year-old brother Alan was killed by a truck the same hour her mother found out she was pregnant with Margery. “She was on her way home from the obstetrician,” the daughter says, “when she saw my brother being carried off in an ambulance.”

From then on, no one in the family was ever allowed to talk about Alan, and a wall of silence was erected around the “change-of-life” baby. “They were never able to connect with me. I think partly because if they let me get too close they would lose me,” Tabankin notes. “As a kid, I didn’t get it. I thought there was something wrong with me. And a lot of what gave me a motive to do things in the world outside came from a sense of not getting enough approval in my household. In a sense, activism became the replacement for my family.”

Her father, a traveling textile salesman, and her mother, a school administrator, were Stevensonian Democrats who rarely talked politics. They lived in an inner-city Newark, N.J., neighborhood, but her parents didn’t follow her uncles and aunts by fleeing into the suburbs, even after Tabankin escaped a rape attempt in the eighth grade.

“I felt I was literally living the book ‘The Other America’ by Michael Harrington,” she recalls. Still, the model student chosen “most likely to succeed” did not see herself as politicized until 1963 when she was a junior in high school and Tom Hayden came to town. Then a major leader for the radical Students for a Democratic Society, he led a small band of young people to Newark to organize. One day a curious Tabankin went to visit the SDS house in the toughest neighborhood in Newark to talk to these young people from the “outside.”

“It was like a lightning bolt for me,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, look what these kids think they can do.’ There was definitely something compelling about it.”

Hayden remembers the 15-year-old Tabankin as “an idealistic kid. There were a lot of young people like that who were restless and searching for a role in creative social change. A new administration was in Washington, the civil rights movement was in the air, and an awakening was in the beginning of the ‘60s, and I think she was caught up in it.”

When Tabankin entered the University of Wisconsin in 1965, the school was a hotbed of radical activism for civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activities. At first she joined the student newspaper to report on it, including a February 1967 sit-in in one of the university buildings to protest Dow Chemical’s recruiting on campus.

“All of a sudden, the head of the campus police said we had three minutes to disperse. And in come probably 50 or 60 helmeted cops with tear gas and billy clubs. They started busting heads,” she recalls. Seventy people were injured, including Tabankin, who had been hit in the stomach, clubbed on the back and tear-gassed badly enough to land in the emergency room. She wound up dictating a story on the fracas to the New York Times. But, instead of exulting over her national scoop, she decided to leave journalism behind forever.

“From that moment on, I decided I wanted to be a political organizer and do things as opposed to write about them,” Tabankin explains.

Immediately, she joined SDS, co-chaired the black student strike on campus, helped coordinate the 1969 Moratorium--a national student boycott against the Vietnam War--became vice president of the student body, even submitted to arrest five times. “Unfortunately, I spent very little time going to classes,” she confesses. “The anti-war movement was my whole reason to live.” Even a bout with mononucleosis only derailed her temporarily.

Always, she was one of the few women’s leaders of a movement that in those days was run almost entirely by men, who saw females more as gofers or girlfriends than equals. She had to prove, in her words, that she was a “better radical than the men.”

Learning From a Master

In late 1969, she was picked to become one of the first women student trainees at master leftist activist Saul Alinsky’s School of Community Organizing in Chicago, where she learned how to form grass-roots efforts and drum up community support. In those days, she was almost a cliche of the activist-in-training--living in crash pads with Salvation Army furniture, flying student fares, wearing her uniform of black beret, wire-rim glasses and Frye boots.

But in June, 1970, with six months to go at Alinsky’s, she received news that her mother was battling a body filled with cancer. So Tabankin returned home to take care of her.

It was a time to tie up loose ends; she got her degree by mail from the University of Wisconsin, became a substitute teacher in history and English at her old high school, and made peace with her family. “My ability to care for my mother and be with her when she was dying enabled us to be close for the first time in my life,” Tabankin explains.

After her mother’s death, Tabankin, then 23, ran for president of the National Student Assn. and was elected its first female head. Immediately, she began speaking on campuses with an anti-war message so widespread it was heard by the North Vietnamese government.

When the telegram arrived inviting her to visit Hanoi in May 1972, she recalls: “I thought it was a joke.” It wasn’t, and she and Bob Zimmerman, then the national coordinator of medical aid for Indochina and now a Los Angeles political consultant, made a film about their trip, which later aired on “60 Minutes.”

Vietnamese Propaganda

The North Vietnamese filled them with propaganda about how U.S. bombing raids were aiming at civilian targets. “It was the first experience either of us had being on the ground during a war, and it was fairly scary,” Zimmerman recalls. “I still have scars from the 18 times we sat next to each other in the bomb shelters while Phantom jets from the 7th Fleet positioned offshore dropped 500-pound bombs on us daily.

“And Marge dealt with her fear by digging her nails into my knees.”

Today, Tabankin is defensive about the trip, taking pains to point out that South Vietnam had denied her a visa and that her meetings with American prisoners of war in North Vietnam provided valuable news of them to their families. “It was an extraordinary learning experience for me,” she defends. “My God, I was able to understand at the age of 23 a sense of what the Third World was about.”

Still, she acknowledges, “I was naive. I saw things as a very young, very intense, very idealistic person who only wanted to see and believe what I only wanted to see and believe.”

In 1972 she moved to Washington to become director of a new activist group called the Youth Project, which funded efforts by young people to run community self-help programs. There also were stints raising money to replace Tony Boyle as president of the United Mine Workers, and working on a reform campaign within the steelworkers union. Along the way she got married, to an activist, of course--Tom Asher, a public interest lawyer who headed the Media Access project in Washington and is now in private practice.

By now, organizing had become second nature and fund raising a learned skill. Tabankin clearly had a knack for going hat-in-hand to philanthropists, foundations and just plain fat cats--"I think that’s my father in me, the salesperson,” she laughs. “Ive always had a hard time asking for money for me personally, but not for something I believe in.”

Then real power beckoned, and in 1977 the Carter Administration appointed her director of VISTA. At age 29, she went from making a salary of $15,000 to $47,000, working with handfuls of volunteers to more than 5,000, managing nickels and dimes to $36 million. Newspapers at the time were full of gleeful stories about how this “old ‘new Leftist’ ” had settled down.

But her marriage also broke up. “There’s no simple answer why,” she says. “But there’s no question that the amount of traveling that I did as director of VISTA put an absolutely unreasonable pressure on our marriage.”

When Reagan was elected, Tabankin was out of a job. The fund-raiser turned funder when she became executive director of the ARCA Foundation, which focused on changing public and social policy on issues of foreign affairs, especially human rights and Central America.

Services in Demand

But she also was in demand by a score of other liberal organizations, from the Countdown campaigns aimed at cutting off funds to the Contras, to the anti-South African apartheid cause. Norman Lear, who put Tabankin on the board of his People for the American Way political action committee, explains she was “that rare combination, a person with smarts and common sense, someone you’d want to ask, ‘Hey, what do think?’ of. . .”

And civil rights leader Roger Wilkins explains that “doing business with Marge is like taking a warm bath. You do business on issues with some people because they’re on your side, but it’s work. But when you do business with Marge, it’s just pure pleasure.”

Tabankin is also that rarity in leftist politics--a serious activist with a sense of humor. A case in point, Mike Farrell recalls, was a fact-finding trip to Nicaragua they made together in 1982 where they were surrounded by “Americans who were more full of the revolution than the Sandinistas. And after a while, we’d heard so much rhetoric that at one point Margie looked at me and said, ‘ This is enough to turn you into a right-winger.’ ”

When Tabankin heard that Barbra Streisand was looking to create a foundation with the proceeds of the album, HBO special and videocassette from her 1987 fund-raising “One Voice” concert, Tabankin offered to come on board as a part-time consultant.

That April, the reclusive singer invited the activist to come to her home in Malibu for an interview. For 90 minutes, Streisand interrogated Tabankin on everything from global warming to pesticides to genetic engineering. “But when she asked if I’d seen an article on the shipping of plutonium to Japan, I was stunned,” Tabankin recalls. “I never expected her to be sharp as a tack on current issues. And I went from being nervous to feeling, ‘Oh my God, I’d better keep up with this person who’s asking me all these questions!’ ”

Six months later, Tabankin took over as the foundation’s executive director. Today, she gives away more than $1 million annually for issues focusing on the environment, peace and civil liberties. It was through the Streisand foundation that Tabankin met one of its board members and Streisand’s closest friend, Marilyn Bergman, who brought her to the attention of the HWPC. “I’d heard about her for as long as I could remember,” Bergman says. “It’s one of those names that you always keep hearing in the best contexts.”

Working with the entertainment industry is old hat to Tabankin, who used entertainers to attract attention to VISTA--asking Ed Asner to put up a Vista poster in his “Lou Grant” office, taking Ali MacGraw to a Boston Women’s crafts co-op, using Peter, Paul and Mary to raise money for causes. “There was a part of me that had always been fascinated by the power of the entertainment industry to communicate to the masses of the American people,” she explains.

Still, her friends wonder how she feels trading in senators for celebrities in her current career. “I don’t see how she could work out there with those Hollywood people,” Roger Wilkins complains. “Though I never had the sense that Washington and Hollywood were that different about egos. Seems to me it takes the same kind of personality structure to be a senator thirsting for the White House and to be a star or director or producer.”

Ask Tabankin herself how she feels about the change, and her answer is diplomatic.

“All I care is that they really are serious about wanting to learn. And if they want to learn, then, hey, I want to teach them.”