In her office Bunny Mitchell laughs easily about the ironies around her: her name, officially Martha Mitchell; her second-floor West Wing office, previously occupied, she's been told, by John Dean; even about one of her predecessors as the District liaison, Egil (Bud) Krogh, who ended up being remembered as the master White House plumber.
But she quickly dismisses talk of ironies: she'd rather talk about the scope of her job - whenever minority or civil rights groups have met with Jimmy Carter in the last few months, Bunny Mitchell has been right by his side. "Let Bunny be your contact on that . . ." has been the President's frequent statement.
After a meeting with the National Bankers Assn., a black group, Carter assigned Mitchell to do a quarterly report on the federal agencies and their minority bank deposit program. But her job and her status as the top-ranking black on the White House staff isn't only to follow orders; she initiates, she coaches, she mediates. When a Labor Department official wanted to know if his $20-million budget for summer jobs sounded feasible to the White House pocketbook, he asked Mitchell to check around. When Urban League President Vernon Jordan wanted a request for Carter's patronage of a League function pushed, he asked Bunny Mitchell.
Who, people kept asking, even disdainfully at first, is Bunny Mitchell? From a few years in local Washington Democratic and women's political circles and a low-ranking job as information officer with the Drug Abuse Council, Mitchell landed among the President's top 12 staff people, itself a largely unknown cluster.
In her post as special assistant for special projects Mitchell isn't locked into any one area but has emerged as an overall minority issues adviser in addition to the demanding assignment of liaison to the District of Columbia. One of the first things she did was to organize the Task Force on the District.
On the reorganization chart, Mitchell was not only spared from the staff cuts but given more policy-making authority.
"Everything is really the same but busier," Mitchell says, her voice etched with the firm exactness of the former schoolteacher that she is. "I have 22 million charges and 700,000 particulars. It's an increase in depth, not jurisdiction."
Both constituencies have complained of White House neglect in recent years and are looking for an I.O.U. for their overwhelming support at the pools. In the campaign Carter talked intensely about correcting past exclusions of minorities in decision-making posts. So far only Andrew Young and Patricia Roberts Harris have attained any visibility. The administration's black appointees, according to a study last month, total 11 per cent, 32 out of 300 appointements.
Bunny Mitchell, who has been called a token, is ready for all comers. "I'm not afraid or reluctant to talk to anybody," she says. As she talks Mitchell tilts her head to the side. Her gaze is relaxed, yet fixed, cover girl in its immobility, cover girl in its sheer, arresting attractiveness. She smiles as she tosses off a feminine snarl to her skeptics.
So far Mitchell has been complimented for reaching out to key black officials, her accessibility, and her quick grasp of the problems. But she's also been labeled as window-dressing and inexperienced, especially in civil rights areas that have become increasingly more sensitive as discrimination becomes more subtle.
Inside the White House, where access is often the key to success, she has won some valuable listeners, "Bunny Mitchell is one of three of four people who can come into my office without an appointment," Carter told one prominent Democrat.
Adds Stuart Eizenstat, the assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, "She's very important to me and very important to the President. We ask her opinion on the minority community, how they will react to issues, among her other duties. She has quickly gained everyone's respect. She was one of the few staff people to accompany Carter the entire length of his first political swing as President. When Walter Mondale is absent from the District Task Force meetings, she chairs the sessions.
When it is suggested to Mitchell that she seems pigeonholed, a black working on national black issues and those affecting a predominately black city, she grows exasperated. Her voice is suddenly as tight as a fighter's fist. "It isn't true," she says. "First, those issues transcend race. It's also very helpful and healthy to know that there are other blacks at the White House and throughout the federal structure, in a variety of positions so that whole black nation isn't looking at me and saying here's this one black child to do for all of us."
If this one black child, as she says, fails, then the magazines that have spoon-fed generations with images of the smartest, most popular and prettiest kid on the block always succeeding will have a major embarrassment.
With all those traits part of her formation, Mitchell has gone from Gary, Ind., to the White House. In a home that Mitchell says functioned on affection and activity, Louis and Elizabeth Mallard set a standard of contributing for their only child.
Mallard, a retired high school coach recently inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame, was the handsome, larger-than-life hero around Roosevelt High, the man all the girls loved and all the boys admired. "I saw how my parents were influencing the lives of all the students who gathered at our house," says Mitchell. "From early on I wanted to be a real contributing factor to the social welfare of my community."
What her parents stressed, says Elizabeth Mallard, was "morals. There's no substitute for that and we always told Bunny to be herself." As a Girl Scout, Mitchell took care of a crippled youngster each Saturday and she played the organ in the family.
Growing up she admired the way Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson maneuvered and survived. "The question for me has been how can you be electic by choice, maintain the necessary equilibrium to do it all, and still make a difference," says Mitchell in a firm voice "and I'll work that out."
At Michigan State University in the late 1950s Mitchell studied journalism but also learned to use political organizations as stepping-stones. At the time blacks were only a few hundred out of thousands of students but Mitchell worked well among all the groups, reforming dormitory rules, revitalizing the campus NAACP and raising money for the sit-ins in the South.
"I pursued things I wanted to do without stopping to think a black man or a black woman should be doing this. I worked to change the school's rules because they didn't make sense," says Mitchell. In 1968, after teaching and writing advertising copy in Gary, she moved to Washington. Initially attracted by the educational concepts of Federal City College, she designed and directed its continuing education program for women and a rehabilitation program for women offenders, Project New Hope.
"Bunny was a lighthouse for the rest of the staff. I've seen people go into her office with problems and come out feeling better. It was not that the problem was solved but Bunny had listened," says Walter Ridley, now an administrator at Lorton Reformatory.
Yet some associates have felt the diplomatic, counseling Bunny Mitchell often caved in to a remote, egotistical person. Mitchell built the D.C. WOmen's Political Caucus into a vigorous unit but some felt, in a dictatorial way. "She took credit for other people's work," says one active member. "She's a real self-promoter but she's also extremely capable. Really it's an ability I wish I had because you get ahead fast." At the Caucus her pragmatism surfaced; she tabled the Caucus support of statehood for the District because she didn't think the issue had enough citywide support.
Four years ago Mitchell married Leonard Mitchell, a management consultant who also worked on the Carter campaign. His ambition matches hers. "They sort of keep their eye on the sparrow - always," says a good friend of both. What they try to do in their careers, says Leonard Mitchell, "is approach our job in a universal way. Bunny is eager to interface with all people."
Before her White House appointment, the Mitchells had a quiet but busy life of small dinner parties and evenings at the discos. Now Mitchell looks forward to undemanding evenings, curled up with a federal policy tome. "Tight now relaxation is doing a lot of reading - job related reading, with some semi-classical or jazz music in the background," she says.
Perhaps Mitchell pushes herself too hard. After Audrey Rowe Colom was elected chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus, she told friends that she was so exhausted from the campaign that she was taking off for the beach. "How dare you," she recalls Mitchell saying, "you have to be twice as good as anybody else. Everyone is watching you. Jump right in."
In meetings she's been described as a skillful mediator and an aggressive prober. Jack Watson, another high-ranking staffer, has worked with her on a status report on minority business enterprise. "She convinced the Office of Minority Business Enterprise and the Small Business Administration to get started with their own analysis of what was wrong," says Watson.
Hints of anger surface as her vocie registers annoyance, not the usual patience. When the D.C. Task Force was criticized as a patronizing gesture, mainly because it includes, on paper, only two officials of the city, the mayor and CIty Council chairman, Mitchell was defensive but cool. Sterling Tucker said she was skillful; Marion Barry said she didn't have any power.
But privately Mitchell can get very flustered. A friend once left her infant at the Mitchells' house in Southwest for a weekend, and when she picked up the child, a shirt was tied around for a diaper. "I just couldn't deal with it, so I let Leonard do it." Mitchell apologized.
It's the composed Bunny Mitchell who will shape her White House job into an effective base. Now Mitchell finds herself wrestling with the tugs between saving the private person from the public domain. "I went to give a speech one night and all the programs had my picture on it. They were all lined up on the plates - a Bunny Mitchell for everybody," she says, laughing but actually appaled. "I can't explained it, it was like a funeral, it was very eerie. I didn't like it."