At many moments in her life, Margery Tabankin has asked herself, “Am I selling out?” A recent fundraiser she organized in Santa Monica, Calif., to persuade celebrities to donate to Democratic super PACs was not one of those moments.
The evening—hosted by actors Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski—boosted Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren more than any event previously held in her campaign. And behind the scenes, a woman who began her career taking blows from police at a Vietnam War protest recorded each ticket, donation, and donor address to comply with Federal Election Commission rules.
After more than 40 years in the trenches of liberalism, Tabankin says she is completely comfortable with her role as a conduit between the deep pockets of Hollywood and progressive causes in Washington.
It was in the late ’60s in a hospital in Madison, Wis.—where Tabankin was healing from injuries she suffered while covering a protest for the University of Wisconsin newspaper—that she decided to become an activist.
“There was a very clear moment. I can remember it exactly,” Tabankin, 64, said in an interview with National Journal Daily. “I was in the emergency room and I thought, ‘I cannot be an observer. I want to be a part of things.’ ”
She started attending antiwar meetings and became the first woman president of the National Student Association at the age of 24. The position made Tabankin a leader in the protest movement and caught the eye of Vietnamese communists who invited her to witness what they considered atrocities being committed by Americans in their country.
Over a 10-day trip in 1972, Tabankin said she counted 17 attacks, including some on Vietnamese hospitals, houses, and schools that Americans had been told were being protected. Outraged, she was convinced by her tour guides to go on the radio in Hanoi and tell U.S. troops that they were firing on innocent civilians. In retrospect, Tabankin realized that she was being used by the North Vietnamese as a propaganda puppet.
“I was so conscious of the agenda I had, I was probably not conscious of the agenda they had,” Tabankin said. “I would have said it in America in a heartbeat. But there were still guys on the ground. It was demoralizing to them.”
Upon her return, Tabankin made veterans one of the many targets of her philanthropic work. She also helped build up the Youth Project, a group that sponsored young people to tackle social issues in low-income communities. Working with Miners for Democracy, she helped elect a new leader to replace a corrupt union boss charged with murdering his previous challenger. She took her interest in labor issues to the South Side of Chicago, where she hit a real challenge working on a campaign for a steelworkers union sharply divided between Croatian and Serbian immigrants.
Then, at 29, Tabankin was called out of the South Side and into the White House to work for Jimmy Carter’s administration. She would head up a new program that allocated $58 million through the VISTA program—now AmeriCorps VISTA—to volunteers going into low-income communities around the country. At the time, Tabankin said she had never made more than $6,000 a year and couldn’t imagine balancing such a large budget or working at the highest levels of government—the very institution she had been rebelling against for nearly a decade.
“I was like, ‘Am I selling out?’ ” Tabankin said. “But it ended up being the best education I ever had.”
Tabankin stayed on all four years of the Carter administration and learned how government worked. Years later, after leaving the White House, Tabankin caught a flu she couldn’t shake. By the late 1980s she was diagnosed with a neurological disease that grew so intense she had trouble walking and forming sentences. Friends came to check in and bring dinner, but eventually Tabankin decided Washington was no place to heal.
“There were too many of my old ... relationships, causes, and involvements [in Washington]. There were too many things I cared about going on,” Tabankin said. “I was this Type A, completely crazy go-getter, driven person who hit a wall.”
The illness gave way to depression—Tabankin said it came to a point where “you don’t even care if you’re alive or dead”—and she knew she would have to get away from the D.C. bubble to heal both mentally and physically.
The spot Tabankin chose for a temporary getaway, Los Angeles, has now been her home for 25 years. At her own consulting firm, Margery Tabankin and Associates, she works with friends like Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg to find worthy causes for their philanthropic organizations. And her old friends from Washington call her when they need an actor to promote a political candidate or cause.
This article appears in the July 19, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.