I have written previously about the importance of Mrs. Miles (Margo) D.B. Carlisle, who, almost invisibly, managed to be one of the most important conservatives of our time. Senators called her the 101st Senator. They were correct. First as Executive Director of the Senate Steering Committee (the caucus of conservatives), later as Director of the Senate GOP Conference, Executive Director of the Council for National Policy, Vice President of the Heritage Foundation, and an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Caspar N. Weinberger, she was consulted more and more about the Senate Rules and later on policies of cosmic importance. Her favorite was Senator James B. Allen (D-AL), as both had studied the rules and precedents of the Senate and when working together were dynamite. Yet Margo never acknowledged that she had been meeting with Allen and the Senator never acknowledged his Republican consultant. At one time they had the Senate completely tied up. Better that than passing bad legislation. Talk about the odd couple. One was from the educated East and the other from the backwater of one of the poorest States in the Union.
In this era of flashy egos when one consultant attempts to outdo the other, Margo Carlisle was deliberately the opposite. A deeply private individual, she knew exactly with whom she wished to speak and, conversely, with whom she did not wish to speak. She once upbraided me for giving her home telephone number to a somewhat liberal Republican who had called to ask me a question I was ill prepared to answer. I never did that again and that was about twenty–six years ago.
It is difficult to think about Margo’s not being with us on Thursdays. I initiated a lunch, which Edward J. Feulner, Jr. later named “Six-Pack” inasmuch as in 1975 when I started the lunch there were only six of us, to exchange information. The idea was to have both sides of Congress represented and to have a limited number of outside groups as well so the inside could sing on the same sheet of music as the outside. This meeting dealt with institutional matters rather than only legislative matters. Margo usually spoke the least as we went around the room, taking turns, either telling a story or asking questions. When she did speak everyone listened. While this was as serious a meeting as has ever been constructed, she could turn Six-Pack into an absolute circus just by telling of something which had happened to her during the week. But usually it was terribly important.
What, I suppose, is so remarkable is how little she played the game. In Washington you had to be invited to all the right parties. She was invited. She seldom went. And somehow by making herself scarce she became more and more powerful. She could manage to survive by taking the hood off of a car and then asking someone to fix the vehicle. She was a deeply rooted Christian who managed to keep her Christianity intensely private, much like the early Christians who drew pictures of a fish in the sand with a stick so they could recognize one another. She was very particular about the church she attended. She wanted to be sure that the traditional Mass was said. Later in life she found herself in a church where the service wasn’t even called the Mass. Eastern Catholics called their services the “Divine Liturgy.” But in her mind that service, unchanged since perhaps the 4th Century, was not an invention of a modern Pope, but rather like its Tridentine counterpart in the West, was “the Mass.” The point is she was not one to compromise. I knew her for over thirty years. I never ever recall her compromising on anything.
Even if called upon by virtue of her work in the Senate, she found a way to withdraw so she would not be associated with whatever decision was made.
Yes, Margo was an extraordinary human being. Raised to believe that higher education was an all-important objective, Margo nevertheless was as at home with the security attendant making sure we got our proper sticker showing to the world that we were going to the right place as she was with any United States Senator, save the far left.
Margo achieved not by buying influence, nor by knowing all the right people, nor by some media splash; she got to be one of the most powerful women in conservative politics the old fashioned way. She earned it.
She came to be so well respected not by jumping in at every point during discussions but by waiting to be asked for her thoughts.
Soon after Senator Jake Garn (R-UT) called her the 101st Senator her opinion was continually sought. Even when I called Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) on issues he would often ask, “What does Margo think of that?” or “Have you cleared with Margo?” I have thought and thought for days and I absolutely cannot think of anyone who comes close on either side of the aisle in generating that level of respect from Members of Congress. We would have changed Rule 22 (the filibuster rule) long ago but for her friendship with Senator Charles (Mac) Mathias, Jr. (R-MD). Mathias was more liberal than many Democrats. Yet he understood the principle that if you do serve in a minority the day may come when you will need protection from the tyranny of the majority.
More than one Republican leader was frustrated and amazed, having appointed Mathias to commissions upon the assumption he would favor killing Rule 22, only to find the Senator from Maryland on the side of those who wanted to keep it.
Margo was not unique in one respect. Her family was more important to her than anything else. Her husband, Miles, and children were supportive all these years, perhaps enabling her to be as rock solid as she was.
I could list all Margo’s accomplishments. I could tell more stories about her. I could do that about many others as well. What one needs to remember about Margo is that she did so much by adhering to her beliefs. She became powerful not by lording it over people when she had the chance to do so but by never exercising power unless it were absolutely necessary. And when it was, you would see Margo Carlisle literally putting her life and career on the line against a treaty with the Soviets she and the conservative movement considered unjust.
Anyone steeped in the history of the Cold War can tick off a dozen names he feels were instrumental in the Soviet Union’s implosion. But of course, for each high-profile person there are those behind the scenes you may not have heard about. Those people seek nothing for themselves. They specialize in making the people whose names you might remember look good. That was Margo. She thought brilliant thoughts. She whispered brilliant things. Senator James McClure (R-ID) benefited from this as Chairman of the Senate Steering Committee and later as Chairman of the Senate GOP Conference Committee, as did Secretary Weinberger and Ed Feulner.
And far from those who surround themselves with staff that tell them how wonderful they are, Margo also had brilliant staff. They respected her to the hilt but they argued issues with her and challenged her to the wall. The resulting decision always was better.
O, for the privilege to say goodbye one more time, to tell her these many things I never got around to saying. I assumed somehow things would be different. As my mentor, retired Professor Charles A. Moser, of The George Washington University, always said, “Never make assumptions.”
Go in peace, Margo. We know God loves you. And so do those of us who have had the privilege of knowing you. May you rest in a place where there is no grief, no pain, no sighing. Just Everlasting Life. Memory Eternal!