You could hardly see who was in the center of the circle, there were so many reporters and cameramen pushing and shoving to get closer. The crowds were closing in on them too, curious clusters of guests wanting to know what they were missing. This was clearly the center of excitement at the Pan American Union Tuesday night among the 1,500 Latin Americans who had been invited to celebrate the signing of the Panama Canal Treaties.
Finally the crowd began to disperse as President Augusto Pinochet of Chile and President Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina eased away from each other, each flanked by individual bands of bodyguards.
A group of Latin American reporters encircled one who had been close to the two leaders to get a fill-in on what they had discussed. For several minutes he talked excitedly to his colleagues as they frantically took copious notes on the muttered exchange between Pinochet and Videla.
Afterwards another reporter walked up to the briefer and asked what he was telling the other reporters that was so important about the top-level conversation.
He beamed and shrugged, "I was telling them," he said, in a heavy Spanish accent, "that they don't say nothing."
People, not only in Washington but throughout the country, have been bombared all week long with television, radio and news reports of the "eventful" signing of the treaties and the accompanying festivities or fiestas as the case may be.
They've seen the pictures of "Jimmy" and "Jerry" smiling and shaking hands in the Oval Office together: they've seen the reports of Andre Previn and Isaac Stern performing at the White House dinner; they've watched the demonstrations against the "fascist fiesta" by human rights groups; they've heard about the Panamanian who burned himself to death in Stockholm in protest.
They've heard Ronald Reagan speak out against the signing of the treaties and they've been told of the senators and congressmen being wooed to vote in favor of the treaties.
Those in Washington have witnessed the endless motorcades of flag-bedecked black limousines belonging to one or another of 25 heads of state and heads of delegations, each escorted by speeding police cars and screaming sirens winding their way through the capital, tying up traffic.
And of course they've seen the bosom of the wife of the secretary general of the Organization of American States, at the signing of the treaties, flashed across the nation as a tribute to this momentous and historic occasion.
So naturally many people are wondering what it is all about.
Rarely in the history of the nation's capital has so much been made of so little. The social events for the 384 foreign visitors have had the feel of a wedding where the bride and groom announce they have decided to live together rather than get married. Nobody knows quite what he is supposed to be celebrating.
Yet the heads of state, their wives, their families, their guards in the case of Pinochet of Chile, there were some 50 bodyguards - their entourages, their State Department escorts, plus senators, congressmen, cabinet members, administration aides and Latin American experts and the police not to mention the President and the First Lady - have been running around the city like gerbils in a cage for the past four days contributing to one of the most successful hypes since Evel Knievel decided to jump the Grand Canyon.
It began with the reception at the Pan American Union Tuesday night, the day after Labor Day, the kickoff of the Washington social season. The streets were closed off for blocks on either side of the building on 17th Street where the reception was held and you had to have special cards to get in. Once in, many people wondered why they had bothered to park miels away and walk in the pouring rain to get here. The Great Hall was mobbed with what soon was a great crush of perspiring people, who spent the entire evening queuing up hopefully to get a drink or being pushed aside by press or bodyguards trying to get near or protect the great.
Even Rosalynn Carter's appearance went practically unnoticed by most of the guests, so crowed was the hall when she arrived.
Pinochet was the big attraction, eliciting a round of applause when he arrived (which Rosalynn Carter did not get); and when he left, things more or less fell apart, leaving 1,500 people to finish off the shrimp and crab claws.
Wednesday night was the official signing followed by two dinners - one for heads of state and delegations at the White House which also included those senators who would be most needed in the White House push to get the necessary two-thirds vote next spring for ratification of the newly signed treaty. (Because, of course, without those votes there are no treaties.)
The State Department got the leftovers for dinner - those who couldn't be slighted but who were not important enough for the White House.
Thursday night was a party for Ronald Reagan given by Bob Gray, former president of Hill and Knowlton public relations firm and former escort of Rose Mary Woods.
Anna Chennault, Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee and former White House aide Lynn Nofziger, Ret. Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. and the ambassador from Taiwan were among the guests at this low-key anti-treaties party celebrating Ronald Reagan's attack on the treaties earlier that day before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. Reagan was still angry. Especially at Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos, who has been saying all week that he thinks it will be difficult for him to "persuade the people of Panama to accept a treaty that still has a few years to go."
"I think what he's saying very insulting to us," said Reagan. "And now he'll go back to Panama, find out which way his people are leaning so he'll be able to lead them in that direction."
Reagan is not the only one who has been upset by all this massive celebration. Though nearly everyone this week had an opinion one way or the other about the Panama canal Treaties, President Carter has valiantly gone about the business of creating a media event of such mcgnitude and pomp that some people may well see the whole thing as a fait accompli- rather than what it is - a commercial.
Here's how one skeptic described what's happening over his third gin and tonic at the Pan American Union:
The reactionaries think we should never give the canal back and the radicals think we should have given it back long ago with no strings attached. The moderates think it's a good idea as long as the Panamanians do but the Panamanians don't know whether they think it's a good idea. The left-wing Panamanian intellectuals think we should have given it back years ago.
The American radicals don't like Panama either, though, because it is ruled by right-wingers who they say are fascists and have violated human rights The bums on the benches in the parks of Washington don't like it because the motorcades and the sirens disturb their peace. The senators like the whole thing, regardless of whether they are for or against because it gives them a tangible issue, and the undecideds like it even better because they will be wined and dined and wooed and fussed over for the next few months by the White House. And the person who likes it the most is Helga Ofila, wife of the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who gets to show off her new fall wardrobe.
But regardless of what anybody thinks, there is nobody who can say that the Panamanian treaties signing event wasn't a massive public relations and logistical coup.
And the credit for that goes to Carter's new chief of protocol, Evan Dobelle, who masterminded the whole thing with only 10 days warning.
He coordinated the dinners, the limousines, the hotel arrangements, the arrivals, the Military District of Washington, the State Department and the White House, the police, the Secret Service and the OAS.
"We had three major meetings involving 25 people," he said, "We had meeting every night, we were operating on a 24-hour basis. But mainly it went well because of being able to coordinate the White House and the State Department. That always makes it a lot easier. As far as I know there were no snafus, not one. It's crisis management and it works."