Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Doreen Mattingly's "A Feminist in the White House"

Doreen Mattingly is Associate Professor of Women's Studies at San Diego State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America's Culture Wars, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Feminist in the White House falls in a chapter describes Midge Costanza’s tenuous and often marginalized position within the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Eager to distinguish himself from the failed “imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon, Carter promised to run an open White House and named Costanza as the person to help him do it. As the first woman to hold such a high position, Costanza quickly became a media darling.
Marc Rosen, one of Costanza’s most trusted aides, reflected, “She believed in the campaign promises. She believed she could really make it an open administration in a post-Watergate era ... I think that she felt more than anything a need for people to feel more in touch with their government than they had before . . . She believed times were changing.” Costanza frequently offered her own story as evidence of Carter’s commitment to the people. Newspaper profiles recount her own rags-to-riches story, from her parents’ sausage factory, through the sexist Rochester City Council, to the White House, further defining her as a legitimate representative of the disenfranchised. Early profiles of Costanza are peppered with stories of people who never had a friend or advocate in the White House, until Costanza came. Some of her personal qualities shine through: her fierce Sicilian loyalty, her salty humor and in-your-face style, her enormous compassion. Most of the early articles mention that she never went to college, some speculating about its effect on her self-confidence and power in the White House. For Italian Americans, she was a particularly potent symbol. The Board of Directors of the Italian American Foundation wrote Carter commending him on Costanza’s appointment and the Italian American press covered her with “joy and pleasure.” The combined effect was to portray her as the real “common man” in the Carter White House: street-wise, blunt, and passionate.

Unfortunately, Carter’s idea of an open White House turned out to be quite different from Costanza’s. Rather than trying to include marginalized groups in decision-making, he kept his commitment to an “open, accessible Presidency” through personal humility and frugality. For example, after the inauguration, Jimmy and Rosalynn surprised observers by getting out of the armored car and walking from the Capitol to the White House. He also dismissed many of the trappings of power that had come to be associated with the “imperial presidency,” such as playing Hail to the Chief and giving staffers door-to-door limousine services. He enrolled his daughter Amy in a public school and carried his own bag when he traveled. In Carter’s presidential memoir Keeping Faith he wrote, “I tried in many other ways to convince the people that the barriers between them and top officials were being broken down. A simpler lifestyle, more frugality, less ostentation, more accessibility to the press and public—all these suited the way I had always lived.”

While most thought “an open administration” meant Carter would include input in his decision-making, Carter saw it as making decisions in a way that was transparent, rational, and efficient.
I don’t know that page 99 captures the “quality of the whole book,” but it does a nice job of introducing Midge Costanza, who was the most unlikely of White House officials. She was an idealist, a true believer in Carter’s campaign promises, and a symbol of inclusion for many Americans. When asked to keep his promise of an “open White House,” Costanza believed it meant bringing Carter input from people in all walks of life, especially those typically at the margins. Carter, on the other hand, meant that his White House would be open for viewing and more familiar to typical Americans. Despite the highly visible appointment of Costanza, his decision-making style was famously closed to input from all but his closest advisors, a circle that rarely included her.

This discussion of Costanza’s place in the White House, as well as her beliefs about why she was there, help frame Costanza later struggles. In particular, Costanza tried to use her position to advance the aims of the feminist and LGBT movements. When she encountered roadblocks, her sense of betrayal and her commitment to her beliefs kept her fighting, even when when it meant public disagreement with the president. For those watching the White House, Costanza was either a refreshing dose of honesty or a disloyal heretic. For those opposed to her positions, Midge Costanza was evidence that the Democratic Party was no longer a home to “family values” voters. Costanza’s story provides an inside look at the dynamics within the White House at the dawn of the now too-familiar and very partisan culture wars over abortion and gay rights.
Learn more about A Feminist in the White House at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue