As if the White House didn't already have enough problems on its hands, it now appears that the Carter administration is engaged in scheduling TV shows picking and choosing those personalities we're supposed to swallow with our morning coffee.
Yesterday the Midge Costanza Show was canceled by Jerry Rafshoon.
Costanza, who had been scheduled to star on ABC's "Good Morning, America," a long with Mr. Excitement himself, Stu Eizenstat, was asked to refrain from appearing so that her co-star could have "a longer period of discussion" - to use Press Secretary Jody Powell's words.
"Just a matter of bad communications," maintains Midge Costanza, who told Rafshoon to send her regrets. She wasn't going to be the one to do it, not after "David Hartman (the show's host) had announced me two days in a row."
It was just another small wound.
"One night," she says unsmiling, in the basement, the White House basement, "One night I went to the Jefferson Memorial. At 4 a.m. Tell you what drove me to it.
I'm sitting in the White House - assistant to the President. I had the ERA. I had the minorities, I had the American Indians - all in one day. It had been quite a day. And I said to myself, "This is me in the White House, home of the most powerful office in the world, and why can't I feel a sense of accomplishment?"
Midge Costanza, who spent 23 years as an executive secretary in Rochester, N.Y., was thinking about the troubles of middle America, about people so driven to despair by high taxes, high prices that "they just hit out at things, they just hit out..."
"I've come to be re-energized," she announced to an astonished couple from Brooklyn who also happened to be standing in the Jefferson Memorial at 4 a.m.
Then she looked cround her, at the panels proclaiming equality that she'd come to read.
"And every time I came across 'man' or 'men' - a perceptible wince - "I changed it mentally. I said,"IT WAS PERSON, TOM! IT WAS PERSON! OKAY TOM. ISN'T IT IRONIC THAT IT TOOK A WOMAN TO BE RE-ENERGIZED RIGHT FROM HERE?"
She turned back to the wondering couple from Brooklyn. "He was so brilliant," Midge Costanza told them sorrowfully." "And yet he wasn't fully informed."
She never went back to bed that night. She felt like writing a memo to Jimmy Carter, the man she had first met in '74 during her bortive campaign for Congress, suggesting that visits to the Lincoln and Jefferson statues should be required every three months for all White House staffers.
There is no describing how Margaret Costanza feels about Jimmy Carter, who came to help her four years ago. She took one look at him, stunned that this Southerner thought he could help her in a city like Rochester, and murmured: "Are YOU running for President?"
And when he said "Yes." that was it for her. "When I give my loyalty, that's it," she says flatly.
There is, however, some question about how the White House feels about Carter's old ally Midge Costanza these days. It is a question that clearly plagued an ERA marcher when she asked the White House aide, "Are they aiming for you, Midge?" It is a question that Midge Costanza had to laugh off (because that is what is expected of her, that is what she is by now used to doing), by replying, "Naw. If they were, they'd have failed at that just like they fail at everything else they aim for."
But theyaimed for Midge, all right. They took mark and aimed and shot, and she dropped - to the ground floor. They did not aim to kill, of course. That would be too embarassing, too obvious, and too final. The White House is much like any big corporation. The big corporation don't like to fire. They let you down.
They moved Midge Costanza to the basement in May, and her staff was reduced from 15 to one. Hamilton Jordan wrote her a memo on the subject of the move, and in a way she was lucky. Originally they had wanted to move her and all of women's and domestic human rights issues to the EOB.
She read about the Other Woman in the papers.
"That was sloppy," she says hotly. "That was careless."
Thay moved Midge Costanza after whisking Anne Wexler into the White House, where she's doing the hardsell on some of Carter's policies (urban, energy) to specific interest groups. They made Midge Costanza head of the interdepartmental task force for women, and she'll get four staffers for that. They removed some special interest groups from Costanza's exclusive control - and parcelled them out to other staffers.
Midge Costanza laughs a lot in her small basement office ("I call it the ground floor - you better, to."), because what else is there to do in a situation like hers, and besides: "Humor - I enjoy it so much, but at the same time, it is my crutch. Yes."
Midge Costanza laughs, and says that really, before this, when she worked pretty near Oval Office, she had far-far-far too much to do with too many groups, and horses around with the photographer and the guards, and talks about "getting a shovel" in case she drops any lower, and also says, "I'm not leaving" pointblank, and mentions just how crazy she is about Jimmy, what a great guy he is, and laughs again . . .
And finally you say, because you have to, Well, Midge, if everything is so great and you love Jimmy, what are you doing here in the basement?
Costanza stops a moment, her big brown eyes growing rounder still. Finally she says, but very slowly:
"Some day and outside of this interview, I may be able to answer that question. Right now I'm not so eager to answer that questions."
A pause, a swallow, a timid smile."And perhaps I don't want to know. I associate it with having a terminal disease and not going to a doctor." Moving the Thorn
Those who feel they have the answer to that question don't generally want their neme to be used.
"Jimmy Carter does not like to fire people," says one knowledgeable observer, intimate with the White House. "Or rather, mostly he lets his principal henchman do it - I mean Ham Jordan - by creating an environment where most people with dignity leave. They've stripped Midge of her job, her responsibilities, her staff.
"She has the woman's issue, which you know inside the White House ain't a very hot priority."
So the descent of Midge Costanza is in many ways just a small classic in the annals of bureaucratic history: Taking the thorn from the side, and moving it - instead of removing it.
"I think you're approaching this from the wrong basis," Anne Wexler says. "Our jobs are not in any way the same. Mine is dealing with a few issues and very specific constituent support, putting together constituency groups, working with liaison groups on urban problems. I don't do what Midge did or does."
"That's probably the hardest thing Anne could have said," says the man who knows the White House intimately. "Because what do you think an assistant to the president for public liaison does? She should be creating support for Carter's initiatives, bills. I mean she's bringing groups into the White House for coffee and tea, you know. Midge was supposed to do a job on them."
But at the same time, this man says: "Ham Jordan didn't WANT Midge to do that job (of selling the President's policies). He didn't recognize the need, and thought he and his staff could do it. Don't forget - Midge was originally hired because she was considered a non-threatening women, and Ham just wanted her to be The Woman Assistant to the President.
"Or, as Ham once said, 'To deal with the nuts I don't want to deal with.'"
They changed the rules on Costanza, says this man. As it turned out they wanted her to be more than she ever was hired to be - more than she ever could be. "The vice president," he says, "thought the job was critical, really critical."
"So what does it mean - selling policy?" Gloria Steinem wants to know. "If a person is in the White House telling the truth, and it makes you think, 'Well, then . . . They can't be ALL bad.' Well - that's selling."
The contrast between Costanza now and Costanza as she was at the Democratic Convention is quite staggering. The sharp wit and acid mouth were there then, but modified. Then she was awed that she would be giving the seconding speech for Carter, her mind racing ahead to the contemplation of what sort of dress she had to buy for such a momentous occasion. Then she was stunned (but not stunned into silence, of course, for Costanza is above all a great performer) that she - Midge Costanza, vice mayor or Rochester - had just met Liz Taylor. Then she was overwhelmed: She, Midge Costanza who had never had a college education, was in with the Carter crowd.
"Then I looked around at some of the more brilliant people and the more educated people," Costanza says sardonically, "And I said, 'Oh thank God to have never been encumbered with that kind of intelligence." Telling Truths
"Has he done enough for women?" Midge Costanza asks, unprompted. "Go on" - her hands beckon "Go on - ask me: Has Carter done enough for women?"
Permission granted, she rushes on blithely: "In the area of employment and presidential employment, he's done more than any other president.
"All right. The fact of the matter is: Have we done enough for ERA? I think the president made every single phone call he was asked to make. And in involving me, Judy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, he has made a great contribution.
"NO, the ERA is not equal (in White House concerns) to the Panama Canal. NO. ERA is not an issue around which the entire White House has been running, like with SALT and other issues. ERA has not reached that level, of course not."
Midge Costanza pauses for breath.
A few days later, Gloria Steinem says: "I saw Midge at the House just recently. She said, 'I suppose I'm going to be in trouble again - I told a reporter that White House ERA emphasis wasn't equal to (emphasis on the Canal).'"
"Midge," Steinem replied matter-of-factly, "you just told the truth."
But The Truth, never noticeably in great demand at the best of times, has lately been suffering at the White House an embarassing surfeit. Andy Young insists on telling the truth as he sees it. Ham Jordan and Jody Powell have not been shy. Midge Costanza, who called for Bert Lince's resignation, organized a meeting of administration dissidents who disagreed with Carter on abortion, and failed to file on FEC campaign report last July, has not exactly been everyone's favorite pinup girl at all times.
Beyond that, she is perceived by a number of insiders as "a lightweight" there is no fouler term in Washington. In Costanza's case, it is a specific reference to her "lacks of administrative ability, the fact that from the beginning she was not allowed to pick and choose most of her own staff, and that the amount of responsibility overcame her" - according to a woman inside the adminsitration who asked to remain anonymous.
This woman - a friend of Costanza - says, "I could just cry for Midge. I could just cry. It is the most pitiful situation I can think of. Granted she said the wrong things . . ."
And then she says, "Look. This article - it isn't going to be an obittiary, is it?"
This woman is torn - just as there are other women torn on the question of Costanza. She was, until recently, the only high-ranking woman inside the White House, after all. And yet it is said there were feminists she managed to alienate by her quick temper, by the fact "that Midge went into a shell after a while."
"She had nothing to deliver," mourns this women. "All these many, many groups were screaming and requesting immediate solutions. Anyone in that position is hamstrung."
And then there's the other part of Costanza that some point to as being potentially disturbing to the men. The single, unattached, unmarried, undefined Midge that might be galling to what one administration woman calls "that Southern Boy Network that sent Midge to the basement." And, of course, the outspoken Midge. That was another problem.
"They don't like outspoken women," says an outspoken woman. "All the publicity Mary King was getting was a total abomination to them, and they can't stand it and don't know how to deal with it.
"Describe Rosalynn Carter to me," this woman suggests. Opportunity to Differ
For a while there, Midge Costanza was going to go to Skokie, III, over the proposed Nazi march.
"I would have marched side by side with the Jews," she announces firmly.
Did Carter know about her plans?
"No, I don't start out every day with a list of concerns to the president," she says. And then later, "I will continue taking that risk, coming forward. . . ." And still later: "The president of the United States is my friend and my boss. The fact of the matter is: I am given this opportunity in this administration to differ with the president of the United States without abrasiveness."
The fact of the matter is that in one interview. Midge Costanza groans about "legislating money for the ability to manufacture neutron bombs in comparison to failing to legislate marching funds for battered women and children - I find that outrageous," and says she's going to end up doing something supportive for the Wilmington Ten.
She is reminded that Carter doesn't seem to be quite so keen on the Wilmington Ten.
"I don't say that," Costanza replies sweetly.
"Loyalty," repeats an administration woman for about the third time. She has been talking about the loyalty of Carter toward Costanza, of Costanza toward Carter - talking about it with admiration in her voice. Now the voice changes; there is a wondering, bitter edge to it.
"I could cry for all the women throughout the country who depended so heavily on Carter - and there was no follow-up, no follow-up," she says. "There were so many times when there were those of us could have screamed and whistled during the Carter campaign. And we never did. We were so loyal. We kept believing something was going to happen, and it never did."
Midge Costanza obviously thinks something can happen. "What I'm trying to tell you," she says at last, "is that domestic human rights - I can interpret that to mean whatever I want to."
Midge Costanza wrote a memo to Carter defining her and the administration's duties toward women. He signed it. She found that heartening. Midge Costanza, when you think about it, is neither the least nor the most curious element in this administration ministration.
So what made the actions against her fraught with significance is that her descent to the basement appeared, by implication, to be a symbolic descent, too, for those of whom she is guardian: the politically disenfranchised.
"Of course not," Costanza says stoutly. "Of course I don't like the move. But it's like asking me if I'd prefer to go around in a four-door sedan or a bicycle. If you're still able to get around on wheels, you're gonna get there.
"I still have the wheels."
And then she retreats into what never failed her: the stand-up comic routine, quick-paced, perfectly obvious, and a little said.
"It may be that I haven't brought dignity into the White House.
"But I must say I never found any dignity I could take out of the White House.
"I've looked on the ground floor, the second floor, the third floor.
"A White House that ran under-Nixon," concludes Costanza, with a small smile, "can certainly have compassion for Costanza.