Seizing the Day : NOW Leader Tammy Bruce Has Done What O.J. Prosecutors Couldn't: Put Domestic Violence Upfront

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Tammy Bruce has ridden to public recognition on the tail of the O.J. Simpson verdicts, she says she hasn't noticed.

The highly vocal president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women has been an almost daily (and nightly) presence on Simpson-related segments of TV news since the trial ended on Oct. 3.

Hair flying, sign waving and mouth usually in motion, Bruce's anti-domestic violence message has fueled the media with what the 33-year-old women's rights crusader calls "a needed break from all that talk of racism. Ours was a clear position and certainly less contentious. We focused on anti-violence and on the victims."

Bruce led a much-televised 1,500-person vigil on the evening after the verdicts. Three days later, she mobilized 5,000 for a candlelight memorial march in Brentwood, snippets of which were broadcast around the world. And when NBC announced a Simpson interview two days after that, Bruce mounted a protest at which 500 people (and dozens of cameras) appeared--even after the interview was canceled.

Meanwhile, Bruce was besieged with radio and TV interview requests at the small Beverly Hills offices of NOW, where she is the only paid staff member, and where the official position on any given subject is likely synonymous with her own.

Although Bruce's visibility quotient seems to have soared with the Simpson case, she has been carving her niche as a media resource for five years at NOW, articulately answering calls on a variety of feminist issues--from Michael Douglas' choice of films to the latest abortion drug--that demand an informed opinion.

It is usually delivered with great verbal flair, at top speed, with head tossing and limbs moving--a kind of electrical zap that makes people pay attention. Sometimes she overdoes it.

On Ted Koppel's Oct. 4 "Nightline" discussion of the Simpson verdicts, for example, Koppel had barely begun to introduce panel guests when Bruce erupted with a lengthy statement. Koppel tried twice to interrupt her, but Bruce talked right over him.

"I want to draw the line right here," Koppel finally had to say. "We are not going to have five-minute speeches from anyone. . . ."

Later, Bruce did it again, bursting in against Koppel's wishes to say that if police would handle domestic violence cases differently, "Nicole would still be here." But Koppel was out of time.

"Ma'am, you had the first word, and now you've had the last word," he said, closing the show through what looked like clenched teeth.

Running the show is not new for Bruce, who hosts a three-hour radio talk-fest Saturday and Sunday afternoons on KFI.

Alone in the darkened studio, with earphones on, phone lines lit, and computer screen filled with the names of callers waiting, she rejects the plush chairs provided. Instead, she dances around the microphone, on her feet for three hours straight, waving her arms at unseen callers as if she were Zubin Mehta.

Last Saturday, she asked listeners for their "impressions of the work we've been doing," and for their opinions on what kind of person Bruce really is.

"You're anti-O.J., and I'm canceling my membership in NOW," said Karen from Pasadena.

"I never heard of you or NOW until I saw you on TV, and I'm joining because of you," said Judy from Costa Mesa.

"You're nothing but a glory hog with an agenda," groused one listener, followed by another who asked, "Where were your parades and demonstrations for all the everyday women" who are battered by men?

Scott in Pasadena praised Bruce's work, and Tyrone in L.A. wanted to know what NOW had done "in the cases of Axl Rose, Latasha Harlins and Jan-Michael Vincent."

Susie in Hacienda Heights told Bruce: "My first impression was that you are a wacko, man-hating lesbian. Now I think you're intelligent and articulate."

The interesting thing about Bruce's emotional response to all this was her lack of it. For a woman so passionate about issues, she is curiously dispassionate about those who insult her integrity and motives.

"I don't worry whether people like me. If you're in the business of social change, you can't worry about that. I am a messenger, and my job is to move the message."

In truth, she is controversial--both inside and outside the movement. But Patricia Ireland, national NOW president, said, "Tammy has a really good media presence. She's very skilled at that. When [media] folks started talking to her, they kept calling back."

To the listener who called her a media whore, she said, "Absolutely I am. That's how we get our points across."

Off the air, she tells a visitor: "I've been at this work for a long time, and 95% of what we do never gets on TV. Me and my volunteers, we live in obscurity and move through our projects never making the news. We do the work because we think it will hopefully change people's lives for the better. Sure, we grab hold of an opportunity to push our message in the media. Wouldn't we be fools to do otherwise?"

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Bruce was born in Northridge in 1962. She said she never met her father, who "disappeared a few months before I was born. I'm not sure he ever knew about me."

Her mother, a retail salesperson, was married twice--but never to Bruce's biological father. Bruce said she had an uneventful childhood and was a good student until she entered Ventura High School, where she lasted only two weeks.

"I was bored. It wasn't challenging. So I took the California Proficiency Exam and passed it."

She left her formal education behind at 15, moved to Illinois where her mother's family lived, and began a series of minor jobs, eventually landing in public relations.

"I quickly learned I was good on my feet, good at influencing people, and that I should have definitely gone to college. I regret to this day that I didn't."

She is an autodidact, she said, who learned whatever she knows because she loves to read.

In her late teens, she returned to L.A. to work for actress Brenda Benet, featured on "Days of Our Lives." The job lasted until Benet committed suicide. After another job with actress Gloria Loring and her then-husband, Alan Thicke, Bruce began a career in electronic publicity: creating video news releases and electronic press kits to distribute to news organizations. She joined the L.A. office of an Australian TV channel, where she wound up booking talent for satellite interviews.

"I was in my 20s, a political moderate and a yuppie, and my only goal was to make $1 million. Then one day I saw people blocking an abortion clinic on TV news, and I decided to attend a NOW meeting on the subject of clinic defense. I was not impressed with the strategy and eventually helped design a better one that is still used today. It was my first activism, and I realized for the first time that one individual really could make a big difference."

She joined NOW in 1988, ran for president in '89, and took office in '90 at the age of 27, the youngest president in the L.A. chapter's 26-year history.

Although she ran for office "as an open lesbian," she said she has always considered herself bisexual, and was engaged to be married at 19.

Bruce lives mid-city with her foundling cats, Bunz and Sadie, and drives a somewhat elderly car. Her NOW salary of about $2,000 per month isn't exactly show biz bucks--but she's happier now, she believes, than she would have been if she'd stayed in television and publicity.

"This work is so satisfying that I have, uncharacteristically, no words to adequately describe how I feel. Let me just say that I may not be getting rich, but if I get hit by a Mack truck tomorrow, at least I'd know that I've done something with my life."

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