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The Nation: That Other White House Woman

5 minute read

Standing up and talking straight to the President

On the softball field across from the South Lawn, the feisty White House shortstop argued noisily with the Washington Press Club runner after they collided. “I thought you were second base,” the runner insisted. Fat chance. Second base is one of the few positions that Midge Costanza, presidential assistant and after-hours shortstop, does not play. Of the seven senior staff members at the White House, she serves as Carter’s sole woman, Northerner, liberal activist and ethnic (if “ethnic” is defined as one with strong ties to a family homeland). She is an all-purpose outsider on an otherwise all-Georgia team.

Even her designated function, head of public liaison, makes her Ms. Outside. Costanza, 44, former vice mayor of Rochester—and not coincidentally one of the first officeholders in New York to support Jimmy Carter for President—has the nation for a client. She and her staff of ten provide White House access for groups of every stripe. The range is unlimited: Texas farm workers who will come this week to seek advice on unionizing, businessmen opposing a consumers’ agency, battered wives pleading for protective legislation. Gloria Steinem and other feminists, Poet Allen Ginsberg, Private Slovik’s widow, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs—Midge deals with them all. As part of her role as Ms. Outsider, she arranged a Rose Garden meeting two weeks ago with the President and leaders of 76 women’s organizations, at which Carter signed a “Women’s Equality Day” proclamation. Then she joined thousands of other supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment and marched on the White House to mark the day. In Lafayette Square, the traditional setting for protesters, she took the microphone to lead the crusade.

Carter backs ERA wholeheartedly, but he and Costanza do not always agree. There was grumbling when, prodded by other women in the Administration, she organized a meeting of women officials who protested the President’s decision to cut off federal funds for abortion. Costanza has always differed with Carter on this issue. “It was not a rebellion,” she told TIME Washington Correspondent Bonnie Angelo. “It was a chance to discuss how to make him aware of other viewpoints. I’m a living example that you can differ with Jimmy Carter. I disagreed with him on three major issues. I was for full amnesty; I was for gay rights; I was for a stronger abortion position.” Some colleagues would prefer that she differed less often.

Within the White House, Costanza has been the target of considerable sniping. In her own defense she pulls out a copy of Press Secretary Jody Powell’s comments: “She has a very good relationship with the President. Maybe there’s some jealousy because of that. It may be a case of people seeing Midge standing up and talking straight to the President—which they don’t have the guts to do, but should.”

The relationship between the diminutive, breezy Midge, with her penchant for salty language, and the straitlaced President is light and easy. As Carter greeted her with a hug and kiss at one group meeting, Costanza cracked, “Well, now you all know what I do in the White House.” Says a veteran Carter hand: “Midge puts a little fun in his day—and he needs it.” Some feel that her joshing comes on a bit too strong. But, notes an associate, “a more serious woman would be too threatening to them.” “Them” refers to the Georgia Mafia led by Hamilton Jordan and Powell. Midge insists that they do not close her out of the action: “The only place they don’t invite me is to the men’s room.” She is more a conduit and an expediter than a policymaker, but sometimes she can see direct results; for example, the President increased day-care provisions in the welfare package after she relayed to him the concerns of the “women’s coalition.”

Daughter of immigrants from Palermo, Costanza began her career as a switchboard operator. Over 24 years, she rose to executive assistant to a Rochester entrepreneur, and carried out a parallel career in city and state politics. For Vice Mayor Midge (she uses her formal name, Margaret, only on voting machines), politics led to an acquaintanceship with Carter—and, ultimately, her present job. Never married, Costanza lives alone in a Foggy Bottom condominium and devotes virtually all of her waking hours to the job. (The man in her life died last year.)

After the day’s appointments are over, she sits on the floor of her cluttered office next door to the President’s private study, and deals with the flood of letters stacked on every horizontal surface, reading and making notes until about midnight. “In the Nixon years,” she says, “this office was a p.r. tool. People who came in were given a photo of the President and a list of his accomplishments. Now they tell us what they think, positive or negative. They don’t all leave here getting everything they ask for. But they do get the opportunity to participate in their Government.” There has been some speculation that Midge, the outsider, would be the first to go. Thus far, though, there has been no complaint from the man next door.

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