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The Fine Art of Juggling the Kids and the President

More moms than ever are learning to balance family and jobs at the White House.

March 04, 2001|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Before Margaret LaMontagne agreed to become President Bush's assistant for domestic policy, she worried about how a single mother could work "80 hours a week," the standard at the White House.

The plain-spoken Texan discussed her concerns with another mother, senior Bush advisor Karen Hughes, and with Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, who recalled that the last time he worked for a president, he did not take a vacation for seven years.

But Bush was eager for LaMontagne to join his team, and when he heard she was hesitating, he asked Card: "Are you running off these mothers?" He wasn't. LaMontagne took the job.

And now she muses about the payoff: an administration in which national policy is shaped in part by working mothers. "When [Bush] talks about people with credit card debt and single moms, the hardest job in America . . . he's talking about me," she said.

Bush has brought half a dozen working mothers into the power center of his administration, and they are embarking on a balancing act that, while still uncommon in corporate board rooms, is almost unheard of in the West Wing of the White House.

Though President Clinton appointed more women to top jobs in government than any chief executive before him, they were scarce in the White House. And over eight years he had fewer influential working mothers around him than Bush does now.

These are not just any group of women trying to have it all. They have jobs in the No. 1 workplace in America, where, until now, not just women, but mothers specifically, have not advanced. With their visibility high, they have the opportunity not only to influence policy but also to set a precedent so that, in the future, mothers in charge will be the norm around the Oval Office.

The culture of the White House traditionally has not been inviting to people who have priorities other than those of the nation. (And that has not kept fathers with young children and forgiving wives from rising through the ranks of many a White House.)

Whether on the laid-back Ronald Reagan team or the intense Clinton crew, people who work for presidents tend to come to work at dawn and leave long after dark, spending most of their days closeted in meetings--sometimes about whether to have more meetings. There is always a crisis threatening, and the relentless scramble for power does not bode well for anyone--man or woman--who wants to make it home for the bedtime ritual.

However, the mothers working for the 43rd president of the United States insist that they have been given assurances--by "senior, senior, senior people," as one said--that they can have a personal life and a job with Bush. Even though Chief of Staff Card is a self-proclaimed workaholic who starts at 6:30 a.m. and quits at 10:30 p.m., he has lectured men and women he has hired to exert the self-discipline to say: "No, I'm going home."

Certainly the president himself is attempting to keep his life in balance, if regular midday exercise breaks and one early Friday departure for the Camp David retreat in Maryland are any indications.

But the question looms: Can women in positions as senior as these retain their power if they duck out for even a fraction of that 80-hour week?

Consider the competing demands facing these high-ranking White House officials:

* Hughes, 44, probably the most powerful woman ever to work for a U.S. president, is the mother of an eighth-grader who traveled with her during the presidential campaign. He started classes last month at a Washington private school known for its heavy homework load, and his father, Jerry, a retired lawyer, is the parent in charge of his routine. Hughes made it to a dinner for parents at Robert's school and plans to leave early every Wednesday evening. She left at 5:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday but could not get home early the next two Wednesdays.

* Juleanna Glover Weiss, 32, is press secretary to Dick Cheney, who could well be the most powerful vice president in modern history. She is also mother to children ages 11 months and 2 1/2 years. While most parents struggle with sleepless nights, she looks forward to midnight awakenings as a gift of playtime that she misses during the day. Her children have a baby-sitter, as well as an attentive working father to help when mom is at the White House.

* Mary Matalin, 47, is an assistant to Bush and to Cheney, not to mention the mother of two girls, ages 2 and 5, whom she kisses goodbye early every morning to make those 7:30 meetings. She has talked about starting a day-care center for the children of administration staff. Her girls also have a baby-sitter, and their dad, Democratic consultant James Carville, is around to help them dress in the morning while Matalin is busy at work.

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