As Midge Costanza Sees It, Her Cluttered Office Provides a Window to the President

Charles Colson, Richard Nixon’s hard right elbow, would never recognize one of his old White House jobs. He might even find it difficult, despite his widely trumpeted religious conversion, to identify with the innocent now filling it: Margaret (“Midge”) Costanza, 44, the only woman on President Carter’s senior staff. So intact is the sense of mission she has brought to her political life that when Carter called last Christmas Day to lure her to her present job, she burst into tears. “I can’t describe what I was feeling,” she says. “It was a mixture of confidence and humility and pride, just a really good feeling.”

Given Carter’s populist themes, her role as his assistant for public liaison is especially important—getting the drift of White House “issue mail” and arranging for advocates of diverse positions to talk with the Administration. These include petitioners from veterans to women to senior citizens to ethnics. The job comes with a staff of 13, a $57,500 salary and the office next to Carter’s. As close as that is to the throne, Costanza seems unspoiled. Her office uniform is jeans—though “I change if I’m going to see the President”—and she works sitting on the floor, in part because the office’s elegant desk is piled high with work. Fueled by 16 cups of coffee, two packs of cigarettes, an afternoon apple and an evening steak, Costanza puts in days that can run to 20 hours. Among the meetings she has managed to set up: a dialogue between Administration officials and pro-Vietnam amnesty groups, Ralph Nader’s visit last month with the President and, next week, a hearing for the National Gay Task Force. “This office is the window to the President,” she says. “We don’t decide who comes in and out by where we stand on the issues.”

The daughter of a lower-middle-class Sicilian couple in Rochester, N.Y., she was brought up in a racially mixed neighborhood—”where life is,” she says, and where her parents, now retired, ran a sausage factory (House of Costanza). Without means to go to college, she took a job answering the phone at a construction and real estate firm and taught herself steno, typing and bookkeeping. She left her job as the company president’s administrative assistant to join Carter.

Politics has been a consuming sideline since 1954, when she became a boiler room girl for Averell Harriman’s gubernatorial campaign. Two years later she worked for Adlai Stevenson. In the mid-’60s she managed Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate campaign in her county and became vice-chairman of the local Democratic committee. She was the first woman elected to the Rochester city council in 1973—and then the city’s vice-mayor. “If Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem had not started it, I’d never have been considered a serious candidate,” she says.

Her effort to unseat the GOP’s entrenched Rep. Barber Conable Jr. in 1974 was unavailing—except that she met Carter, who came to campaign for her. “I was late,” she recalls, “and I ran all the way from city council, and the first thing that hit me was that big, warm smile. I felt a genuine alliance, that this man was truly there to help me.”

She co-chaired Carter’s campaign in New York State and by Election Day had shed the 30 pounds she put on when she tried to quit smoking five years ago. (“I have three sets of clothes,” she laments. She is now 5 feet, 109 pounds.) The Carter victory has changed her life-style drastically. Until Washington, she had lived all her life with her parents. Now she has a plush two-bedroom apartment with an expansive view, has bought herself a new silver-gray Malibu and is in the market for “a big, deep couch. I think I deserve it since I have so much reading to do at night.”

That she has never married is, she says, her trade-off for a fascinating career. “I obviously haven’t met anyone who is more interesting than what I’ve been doing,” she says.

Sometimes, she confesses, it all seems unreal. On Inauguration Day, as she looked over her new office, a volunteer rushed in to say the President was coming by. “I forgot where I was,” Midge recalls. “I was going to ask her ‘President of what?’ Then it all came together. I was in the White House, and this man I knew as a friend was the President of the United States. I thought, ‘I hope I’m strong enough, good enough to do the job.’ ”

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