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SOCAL P.O V. / PATT MORRISON

The Evolution of a Radical Housewife

April 26, 1998|PATT MORRISON

It sounds so, well, sappy, her mantra: "let's make the World a Better Place." So innocuous. So harmless. So nice. So maybe that's why it might work. You couldn't meet a more charming lady than Vicki Lewis Middleton: sorority sister, social science major, church secretary, corporate wife, stay-at-home mom, civic and church volunteer, Junior Leaguer--and now one ferocious little cashmere-sweatered package of moral indignation.

She was the one with the bullhorn, picketing the Twin Towers of Arco, her husband's former employer, for doing business with the military cabal in Burma; she's performed a Judy Holliday number at Arco shareholders' meetings by challenging the Lords of Oil, men who once sat at her dinner table; and she's paid out of her pocket to produce her own half-hour public-access cable TV shows to spill the beans about corporate America from the inside out.

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The waning of the '60s created this hard-edged political truism: As men get older, they become more conservative, and as women get older, they become more radical. Who would have thought it of Vicki Middleton? She was good at corporate wifery; she enjoyed the privileges of life behind the scenes: lavish trips, Capitol Hill, the White House. If you 'scoped out the walls of her Pacific Palisades house--the photo of the Middletons cuddling up to Ronnie and Nancy and the future Lady Thatcher, the framed civic plaudits--you wouldn't connect her to the other Vicki, the woman at work in the living room, Ferragamo-deep in picket signs and files and notes about moral responsibility and global corporate ethics.

She wasn't always like this. She was the sort of young lady who "didn't want to make waves." She could not, by her own acknowledgment, have pointed out Burma on a map. But then she took a few courses in ethics and began campaigning for Character Counts!, the values-education schoolroom-teaching-of-ethics project, and along came her first practical application:

After 35 years of loyalty and labor, Arco gave her upward-trajectory executive husband a golden handshake she found to be both abrupt and shabby. That did not square with what she had been reading about ethics, and then last year she ran across a newspaper story that stopped her cold and heated her to a ladylike broil:

PepsiCo was pulling all its business out of Burma, a.k.a. Myanmar, and human-rights activists were rejoicing. This was what they'd been pressing for since Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi--a former housewife and academic--found she could win both her country's election and a Nobel Peace Prize but could not hold out against a coup by the military, which placed her under house arrest, renamed the country and threw human and political rights into the Bay of Bengal--all the while doing a profitable blind-eye trade in heroin and human misery.

She read a little farther down, and there it said that, in spite of a boycott campaign to throttle the Myanmar junta the way apartheid was starved out in South Africa, oil giants, including Arco, would still be doing business in Burma.

Well, she thought. If they can wrong one person, they can wrong the world.

And that, as they say in the epiphany business, is when Vicki clicked.

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Her show, airing occasionally on century cable, employs what in junior high school we called visual aids: flowering plants, religious statues brought from home and vast photos of the Arco Towers, its board of directors--"all these people are my friends!"--and addresses at which to write them.

She confesses to the camera that "in a lot of ways, I'm shocked that I'm here doing this show, that I'm speaking out about a company that has given us a really nice lifestyle, but I feel they've gotten misguided."

Unscripted, she grazes through the tall grass of campaign funding ("I got to see firsthand how soft money does influence the political process") and profits ("We all want to make money, but we want to do it in an honorable way; ethics costs more, but corruption costs a lot more"), and woman power ("If the men don't want to talk about this, I'm asking the women to please join with us to bring about change").

She is especially proud of a line--"If we live in a global economy, then we also live in a global community"--she came up with on a show that won an honorable mention in a C-SPAN contest. And then she can turn around and sound like a Theta pledge again: "We've got a little something stinky going on."

There is something ingenuous and disarming about Vicki Lewis Middleton, in the second half of her life, coming to discover what so many of her boomer contemporaries learned in their 20s, of the writings of the likes of Sojourner Truth and Gandhi and Susan B. Anthony. But where the fury of their youth left true believers fallen or fattened by the wayside--remember Jerry Rubin, yippie to stockbroker?--she, like the little old ladies in tennis shoes of a generation ago, is one among the new believers, and a Ferragamo force to be reckoned with.

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