Meet Bush’s Domestic Policy Chief

Where’s she been hiding?

John DiIulio told Esquire’s Ron Suskind that the Bush White House is run by “Mayberry Machiavellis” who are incapable of “meaningful, substantive policy discussions.” (To read the story, click here.) This was mainly a swipe at Karl Rove and the absolute sway his political shop holds over policymaking. But it was also a swipe at Margaret LaMontagne, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “What she knows about domestic policy could fit in a thimble,” DiIulio told Suskind. Ouch!

When Chatterbox read these words, his first thought was, “Who is Margaret LaMontagne?” She has a very important job—in the Clinton White House, it was held by Bruce Reed—yet keeps an amazingly low profile. When Chatterbox entered her name in the search engine for the White House Web site, it yielded only four documents. In one of these, the transcript of a tour Bush gave of his Crawford, Tex., ranch in Aug. 2001, Bush actually had to explain to David Jackson—who covers the White House for the Dallas Morning News—that LaMontagne was his chief domestic policy aide. “I’m surprised you didn’t know,” Bush said.

Oddly, Chatterbox was previously aware of LaMontagne just long enough to refer to her as Bush’s “ridiculously low-profile domestic policy adviser,” then promptly forgot about her existence. He relearned of it when he conducted a Nexis database search for this item. From Nexis, Chatterbox further learned that LaMontagne was heavily involved in formulating the “leave no child behind” education bill. (She also worked for Bush on education issues when he was governor of Texas.) But it’s hard to tell what she’s done since. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s done nothing. She may be a candidate for one of those “Most Powerful Bushie You’ve Never Heard Of” stories that surface in newspapers and magazines now and then. Indeed, in September 2001, Washingtonian magazine put her on its list of the 100 most powerful women in Washington.

One possible reason for LaMontagne’s low profile is a gaffe she made on C-Span’s Washington Journal in May 2001. Asked to comment about the decline of the “traditional” (i.e., two-parent) family, LaMontagne said: “I don’t know what the president would say about that. I guess I would respond to say, So what. There are lots of different types of family. I, myself, am a single mom.”

Conservative alarm bells went off immediately. Robert Novak, who was already mad at LaMontagne for accommodating Teddy Kennedy on the education bill, wrote that her “So what” showed “how much LaMontagne is out of touch with Republican cultural values.” Don Feder, a columnist for the Boston Herald, called LaMontagne “insouciant about the family’s disappearance.” LaMontagne’s response angered some nonpartisan experts, too. Shepherd Smith, president of the nonprofit Institute for Youth Development, wrote that instead of saying “So what,” LaMontagne should have said, “That’s tragic.” LaMontagne could have saved herself considerable grief by pointing out that the percentage of out-of-wedlock births leveled off in the mid-1990s. Maybe she didn’t know.

It would be remiss for Chatterbox not to mention that after the Esquire story came out, DiIulio issued a series of humiliating and unconvincing apologies for his remarks. In one of these, DiIulio said he didn’t remember making the crack about LaMontagne, but  “I humbly and sincerely apologize to her just the same.” Alas, the Montagne quote does not appear in a lengthy letter DiIulio wrote Suskind that Esquire made public in order to discourage DiIulio from claiming he’d been misquoted. But Chatterbox has little doubt that DiIulio really said it. Suskind (a former Chatterbox colleague at the Wall Street Journal) is a conscientious reporter, and the remark is certainly of a piece with the criticism in DiIulio’s letter.

[Correction, Dec. 5: David Jackson informs Chatterbox (“Tim, Tim, Tim”) that he knew Margaret LaMontagne was Bush’s domestic policy chief when he had that exchange with Bush at the Crawford ranch. “The quote you reference was a misunderstanding,” he writes. “I was doing a profile of Margaret and was looking for a general ‘gee, she’s great’ quote from Bush during one of my pool duties. I later explained this to him.”]

[Correction, Jan. 16: Margaret LaMontagne doesn’t actually have the title, “director of the Domestic Policy Council.” No one does! Also, her name is no longer Margaret LaMontagne. It’s Margaret Spellings now. For an exhaustive explanation, click here.]