Margo Carlisle Inspired My Public Service

On top of the death of Caspar Weinberger this week, I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing less than 24 hours later of Margo D.B. Carlisle, my immediate boss during my time in the Pentagon from 1986 to 1988. As assistant secretary of Defense (legislative affairs), Margo was the second most powerful woman in the Reagan Administration during her tenure (Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole held the highest post).

Margo worked for conservative Republican U.S. Sen. James A. McClure of Idaho in the 1970s as his speechwriter. She quickly earned a reputation as an expert in the arcane parliamentary procedures of the U.S. Senate. She worked as the director of the Senate Republican Conference and was executive director of the conservative foreign policy group, the Council on National Policy.

Margo showed how to build the conservative movement one person at a time. She knew that personnel are policy. She also knew that long-term success could be had only by encouraging young activists and fostering their careers in public policy. As a result, she was not afraid to take the risk in hiring a young prospect. She had to fight to bring me on board her staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Because of her, I was the youngest Reagan White House appointee (for a time) in the Pentagon at the age of 24. A photo of the two of us in her E-Ring office hangs proudly in my Sacramento legislative office. This is fitting because, if it were not for Margo Carlisle’s taking a chance on me in 1986, I would not be a California State Assemblyman representing almost half a million people in 2006.

This reminiscence about Margo Carlisle would not be complete without a mention of her brand of humor. In her Pentagon office she hung an oil painting of the XB-35 flying wing bomber of the 1940s. The XB-35 looks remarkably like the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Since the B-2 was, in 1986, known only to a very small number of people (I was not one of them), her XB-35 painting was the ultimate insider’s prank. Folks who saw the painting who knew about the B-2 were often initially stunned that Margo would have a painting of it in her office. Folks who didn’t know about the B-2 just assumed she liked old experimental aircraft. Years later, when the B-2 became public, I finally understood her long-running joke.

After she left the Reagan Administration, Margo served as vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. She then worked for many years as chief of staff for GOP Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

Margo is survived by her husband Miles, her son Tristan, daughter Nisi, and several grandchildren.