The personal is political.
That gnomic sentiment has been around at least since the early 1970s, and just about every possible shade of meaning that could be hung on it has been.
But sometimes it’s just literally true. Strands of the personal and the political are so entwined as to be impossible to detangle in Marjorie Margolies’ life — not that she ever would want to do that — and they’re woven through her new book, “And How Are the Children? Timeless Lessons from the Frontlines of Motherhood.”
Ms. Margolies will talk about that book — and of course about her life, as well as her work — on Zoom for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on January 19. (See below.)
It’s hard to sum up Ms. Margolies’ life. It’s easy to describe what it feels like to have a conversation with her — she’s warm, charming, smart, honest, wide-ranging, open, and avowedly Luddite.
But her life?
Here’s a stab at it.
Ms. Margolies was born in Philadelphia in 1942; she and her family moved to suburban Baltimore for her father’s job when she was 8. “My father, who was a gem, got a job at RCA in the Philadelphia area, but he commuted there so I could finish high school,” she said. Then the family returned. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate work at Columbia. Her first career — for 24 or so years — was as a broadcast journalist; a fellowship from CBS, when she was just a few years in, helped fuel her rise.
She loved being a journalist — and to be fair, it loved her back. She won five Emmys.
She went from journalism to politics; for one fraught session of Congress, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, as she was then, won an open seat in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District in 1992. The seat had been held by a Republican since 1916, but she won as a Democrat. “I had some limited name recognition then,” she said. “A group of women came to me and asked me to run.” She thought about it, calculated the odds of winning — “but I always told my kids that you can’t win if you aren’t prepared to lose” — and decided to try, although “I had to give up a job that I really liked,” she said.
“But there was a lot of buzz about it being the Year of the Woman,” she added.
“I don’t gamble, but I do take chances,” she said. “Someone asks if I can do something, and I usually figure out a way to do it, so I usually say yes.
“It doesn’t work all the time, though, and I was sure that I would lose. That election night, I’d only written a concession speech. At no point did I think I would win.”
It is of course impossible to know what would have happened had she not been the deciding vote on President Bill Clinton’s budget bill. (She’d been a no until he convinced her to change her mind.)
“This story is an absolute lie,” she said, but she tells it with glee. “That night of the vote, Clinton called me.” That part’s true. “And he asked what it would take to have me vote for it. And I told him, ‘Your first born.”
The reason that’s funny is that one of her sons, Marc Mezvinsky, is married to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s only child, Chelsea Clinton. That happened many, many years later.
Instead, she said, she voted for the budget because she thought that although it had many problems, it still absolutely had to pass. Her vote tied the count at 217 to 217; given House rules, it passed. “There had been only two votes in history that were that close and that important,” she said. One was to impeach Andrew Johnson; the other had to do with the draft, in the 1940s. (Since her vote, John McCain’s thumbs-down on the Senate’s last-ditch attempt to kill Obamacare in 2018 has been added to that list.)
What about Liz Cheney? “I agree with nothing else that she believes in, but good for her,” she said about the former House Republican from Wyoming’s work on the January 6 committee. “It’s so nice to see someone who is willing to stand up for what she believes in.”
Ms. Margolies considered running a few other times, for a few other seats and got as far as a primary, but her elective career ended in 1994.
Her career as an activist was just getting started, though.
Now, Ms. Margolies is, among many other things, a founder and the president of the Women’s Campaign International, which, according to its publicity, “provides empowerment training for women around the world; she’s also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow at the Fels Institute of Government there.
That, broadly speaking, is the professional side of her life. The personal — which she got to in part through the professional — is that she is the mother of 11 children. Some of them are adopted, some are stepchildren, and some were born to her. Some are parents; she has 21 grandchildren so far. Oh, and she had a family of five Vietnamese refugees live in the family house as well; she became the legal guardian to three of that family’s children, and they’re all still part of the family.
So, Ms. Margolies, you must have a big house, right? “We have a huge house,” she confirmed.
When she still was a reporter, Ms. Margolies did a series of stories on international adoption. She spent a long time looking into adoption in Korea; “literally, as I was ready to leave, they said, ‘We have picked a little girl for you.’” That little girl, 7-year-old Lee Heh, became Ms. Margolies’ first child; Ms. Margolies is said to have been the first single American woman to adopt a child internationally.
The bureaucratic part of it wasn’t easy. Lee Heh could get only a student visa, “and she was the youngest student ever to get one.” Eventually, the adoption went through. “She was just so easy,” her mother said. “And she’s so successful. She went to Brown, she’s married; she has three kids.
A friend from Eugene, Oregon, who worked with an adoption agency there bumped into Ms. Margolies while she was working on a story in Vietnam. Ms. Margolies came home with another child, Holly, “who was half Vietnamese, half American, and totally impossible,” she said with obvious love. “She was a street child. She was 6. She was a really good pickpocket, and she smoked.
“And she was very, very funny. She was my most naughty child. My most arrested child.”
Holly grew up, went to the University of Pennsylvania, got married, had two children, and had a happy life, but she died of cancer four years ago. Ms. Margolies also writes about grief, and coping with it, in her new book.
Ms. Margolies got married — that’s where the Mezvinsky came from, as well as many more children. She has Lee Heh and Holly, her ex-husband brought four more daughters into their blended family, they adopted three more Vietnamese sons, and she gave birth to two more sons.
“It was terrific,” she said. “They all learned from each other. Of course, it was not without its moments — to say the least, it didn’t work all the time — but it was terrific.”
More than 30 years after she was married, Ms. Margolies went through a painful divorce; her ex-husband, also a former member of Congress, was convicted of fraud. She writes about that bitter experience, too, in her book.
Was there anything particularly Jewish about her life?
Yes and no.
“My dad was tikkun-ish,” she said. “He always said, ‘If you can change someone’s life in a positive way, then do it.’”
The title of her book, “And How Are the Children?” sounds Jewish. It’s a very Jewish question. But really it shows the similarity of human connection around the world. It comes from the Maasai people of Kenya — one of the many places that Ms. Margolies has visited through her hands-on, feet-always-moving work with Women’s Campaign International. “The Maasai don’t ask you how you are when you first see each other,” she said. “They say, ‘How are the children?’”
Who: Marjorie Margolies
What: Will talk about her new book, among other things
When: On Thursday, January 19, at 11 a.m.
Where: Online, for the JCC U at the Kaplen
JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
How much: $12 for JCC members; $15 for nonmembers
How to register: Go to www.jccotp.org/ programs/lectures-learning or call the JCC at (201) 569-7900.