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Peggy's Pirouette


By Kathleen I. Kouril

MARGARET HECKLER'S recent turnaround on the "Squeal Rule" attracted a lot of attention. As a Republican Congresswoman from Massachusetts, she opposed the controversial rule requiring that parents be notified when their children younger than 18 seek birth control information at federally funded clinics. An abrupt about-face was required when President Reagan nominated her to become his new Secretary of Health and Human Services.

"The fact of the matter is the president himself supports it strongly." Heckler said at her confirmation hearing. "The issue has been closed really. "Click Another twirl in the career of the pirouetting Peggy--for she's been doing this verbal dance on women's issues and a few others for years now. But until President Reagan resuscitated her political corpse, insiders thought the flip-flopping had done her in for good.

Toeing the Reagan line and keeping up appearances as a feminist would seem to be mutually exclusive tasks for mere mortal women. Nevertheless. Heckler has been trying since 1979, hop-scotching on issues like the Squeal Rule, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the effects of Reagan's budget cuts on women, and doing what political writer Charles Pierce of the Boston Phoenix calls "the abortion tapdance." According to Joshua Resnek, her former campaign press secretary. Margaret Heckler put Pierce at the top of her list of reporters not to be talked to--right after Chris Black, the Boston Globe reporter who gave the world the scoop about Heckler's face lift.

The abortion tapdance consists of a lot of passionate rhetoric and a voting record that doesn't match. Heckler has been a staunch right-to-lifer since the year one, so much so that Sen. Bob Packwood (R.-Ore) became one of the only three senators to vote against Heckler during her confirmation hearings for her new federal post. When Packwood, who supports abortion, asked her at the hearings whether she believed Congress ought to use legislation to reverse the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing it. Heckler engaged in some top-notch hedging. "The reason I am so bothered." Packwood said later, "is that Peggy Heckler feels so strongly on the issue of abortion that there's every indication in her answers to the question that she would do anything, including urging on the president the taking of statutory action to overturn the Supreme Court decision." There's no reason to dismiss Packwood's fears Heckler, after all, did say. "I happen to have every little respect for the Roe v. Wade decision. I cannot follow its legal reasoning."

WHY THEN, as a congresswoman, did she vote for no less than six packages which included federal funding for abortion? Robert McCarthy asked that question during his unsuccessful Congressional campaign against Heckler in 1980. Heckler had never dreamed those funding votes would come back to besmirch her pro-life image. "McCarthy forced Heckler in a role," Pierce says, "where people would look at her and say she's at best a wimp and at worst a liar" Pierce calls McCarthy "the great untold story of the Margaret Heckler Barney Frank race." By forcing Heckler to defend both sides of the fence she was straddling on the abortion issue, McCarthy made Heckler look like a hypocrite and watched her formerly automatic constituencies fade away. "The point that people are missing," Pierce adds, "is that elections are a continuum. What Bob McCarthy started in 1980 with abortion. Barney Frank did with the Reagan budget in 1982." For Heckler, who had survived both Republican and Democratic administrations since 1966. Barney Frank made Reagan and Heckler's support of his economic policies the issue.

Other troubles had begun to brew for Heckler back in the McCarthy campaign. In 1980 the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, of which Heckler had been a founding member, threw its support behind McCarthy. In fact, none of the major women's organizations backed Heckler--a bit of a blow to a woman who always tried to present herself as a feminist standard bearer. Resnek says of his experience during the 1982 campaign. "There I was trying to sensitize myself to women's issues, working for a real live woman boss, and women hated her."

The Mass. Women's Political Caucus dumped Heckler for a variety of reasons. The proverbial straw, though, was probably Heckler's performance at the 1980 GOP convention. At a news conference in the Capital before the convention, Heckler, a member of the Platform Committee, told reporters that she would back an endorsement of the ERA, and would attempt to bring the issue to the floor if it lost in committee. What exactly happened at the convention is not clear, but it is clear that, for the first time since the 1940s, the GOP 1980 platform did not include an endorsement of the ERA. Now what was Margaret Heckler, highest ranking Republican woman in the House, doing during that convention? Some insiders suggest that Heckler made a trade with the president--no fuss about the ERA in exchange for a woman Supreme Court justice. Resnek doesn't buy that line. "At that level of politics," he says, "no deals are made--at least not with those on the periphery, and she's always been on the periphery." Nevertheless, Heckler did make quite a lot of noise about Sandra Day O'Connor's appointment to the Supreme Court, claiming it was she who'd made the President "premier" to appoint a woman. Whether it was her doing or not, the exchange of one woman justice for the ERA may not have been the best trade--off for American women.

PERHAPS HOPING to woo the feminists into her camp, Heckler gave a lengthy analysis in April 1961, on the floor of the House, of the effects of Reagan's budget cuts on women. The clock ticked on and on as the Congresswoman discussed first housing, health services, legal services, CETA program. Social Security benefits and students loans, all of which, if cut, she stressed, would have a disproportionately severe effect on women. One month later she voted yes on three crucial procedural votes which ensured passage of Reagan's budget, while covering herself by voting no on the budget itself.

"It wasn't unlike Heckler to go with the flow." Resnek says. "Waffling was the basis of her career...she was interested in her political survival." Heckler managed to appear to be against the budget, while actually helping to pass it--that is, until Barney Frank called her bluff. As Pierce says, "Heckler's strategy was always something like 'for my own survival I will adopt this position for a while and drop it when people forget about it. 'But with unemployment as high as it is in Fall River, people don't forget about Ergonomics." He adds, "Margaret was straddling a gap so wide she fell in."

Perhaps she still hadn't climbed out in early spring of 1982, when President Reagan fired Joy Simonson, the administrator of the federal programs mandated by the Women's Education Equity (WEE) Act, and replaced her with one of Phyllis Schlafly's assistants from the Eagle Forum. Feminists, including Barney Frank, publicly expressed outrage, but Heckler, who had been a very vocal supporter of the WEE Act, greeted Reagan's dicy move with a roaring silence.

It was Heckler's silence on that issue, along with her about-faces on the ERA, the budget, and abortion, that got her into so much trouble with the feminists and ultimately her constituents. "You can't talk about Margaret Heckler and women's issues," says Pierce, "without talking about Margaret Heckler and the way she handles all issues. Think about it--here was a woman with 16 years in the House and she had no seniority--you've got to work hard at that. She jumped from issue to issue to catch the no one really knew what she believed in. She limited her potential more than anyone else. Now she doesn't have a political future to throw to a cat."

That may be true in the electoral sense, but since Heckler is in charge of Health and Human Services, now, sitting on a budget larger than that of any nation in the world except the United States and the Soviet Union, her effect on women and women's issues, including the Squeal Rule, goes beyond mere irritation. The chances that she will come through as a heroine are not great.

"She won't be a champion of any cause," Resnek says. "Nothing will be spontaneous with her--not women's rights, not men's rights. Reagan appointed a good soldier. She'll look up to him as her leader. If he asked her to jump out a window, she probably would."

What does Heckler have to say about the predictions of her former aide, and the similar characterization he gave of her in an article in this month's Boston Magazine? Via Roger, Woodworth, one of Heckler's spokesmen down in Washington, came the reply--a study "No comment."

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