I HAVE NEVER felt Washington functions were as dull as people sometimes say they are, and well remember the outrage and awe I felt a couple of nights ago as I tugged at the limp body in my arms and raised her to her feet again.
It was incredible that so handsome a woman, so self-possessed, should suddenly collapse into a heap of black silk gauze at the level of the glossy shoes of the ambassador, the senator and a reporter. A few drops of clear wine, like water, shone on the floor like improbable dew, and the three men with one accord hovered over her and began to lift her up - although this surely was not relevant to the main event, a dinner honoring the representative from the People's Republic of China. He is leaving after 4 1/2 years.
In this very room, here in the Iranian embassy, the Chinese chief of mission, Ambassador Huang Chen, had been welcomed then (it was rose-petal soup with walnuts that night) and here the Chinese were again. Caviar and apricots in their honor this time. Plus a repoter with a limp lady in his arms. Didn't even know her name.
And yet the lady, I now believe, was fully relevant, though who can say why.
The dinner had gone very well, sort of. There is some feeling that the People's Republic is recalling Huang (though not put in such harsh terms) to show displeasure at the seeming American position on Taiwan. People speculate whether he will be replaced, or how soon. Some think it may be a long time, and some feel America raised expectations of closer ties with the People's Republic, then dashed them.
In any case Huang, in his toast, spoke of friendship between people, with no flowery phrases for the government. Assistant Secretary of State Lucy Benson gave polite, cool toast.
Sen. Birch Bayh said he had noticed in government and in the press, too, a trend toward dwelling on differences, and hoped we could get on with emphasizing the common hopes of common men everywhere.
During dinner the Chinese ambassador had been more than a trifle annoyed by a Harvard professor who started by asking him what the Soviet government was going to do about giving those islands back to Japan? (Huang said, through his interpreter, he could not speak for Moscow). He was then asked what the Chinese thought of a 17th-century treaty, what they thought of Cossacks, etc., and the ambassador twice said he could not discuss such complex matters in a sentence or two at supper.
Evangeline Bruce, wife of the former American representative to Peking, sat next to Huang, and kept her lips sealed during the quiz.
"Have you a special word in Chinese" she did say, "for these chrysanthemums with the curious petals?"
Possibly she thought relations between the republic and America were in a delicate way, and saw no need to stir the pot or share her latest insights. She smiled a good bit and the ambassador's eyes sparkled when she did.
In actual fact, Evangeline Bruce has spent a surprising amount of time with Huang, who does not speak English, sitting about Chinese airports drinking tea while seeing distinguished visitors off.
She confessed later she has some doubts how interested Huang is in recurved and reflexed chrysanthemums. (And though she did not say so, she knew these were Chinese flowers to end all Chinese flowers, and were probably not a touchy subject with the ambassador - often one notices what is not said as much as what is not said as much as what is said.)
The Iranian ambassador, Ardeshir Zahedi, represents a country a mere hoot and a holler from Russia, and, on the theory it is well to have a few friends, is naturally interested in the People's Republic and the United States.
Zahedi was busy with the shaky (but admirable) proposition that two great friends of Iran should become great friends of each other.
It is always fascinating to watch that ambassador. People have long suspected he would be prime minister of his country, and maybe would have been before now if his background were in economics, instead of foreign affairs.
His tact is famous - he played a part in getting the Hanafi hostages released in Washington a while back - and so are his parties. His attention to every one of his guests is probably unparalled in Washington. (A woman who used to be seen with him said the trouble was that he worked so hard at being host that his own date never got to see him.)
Wives of some of the Chinese delegation attended - perhaps six, among the 34 guests - in their neat sober gray suits, like modest wrens somehow swept into a tropical sunset.
They speak enough English to say how delightful everything is at the party.
The embassy itself is, of course, a Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. dream, with perhaps miles of inlaid mirror, as frieze and cornice ornaments in endless designs. The dining room is hung with mural wallpaper and mirrored friezes and tremendous glassshaded wall lights burning bulbs not quite red and not quite orange. Very dim, too.
The little tables were decked with ochids. (The professor questioned whether they were orchids, which, he always understood, had a great hole in them, and of course this raised profound doubts about the genuineness of these flowers, but Evangeline Bruce pronounced flatly, for once, on the question. They were, by God, orchids.)
I was myself shaken - that there might be any topic unfamiliar to a great academic - but life goes on.
The Persian women did not want to outshine their Chinese guests in costume. To that end they wore modest form-fit sheaths of dark silk and ropes of moderate gold.
"It is virtually a uniform," said one Irainian beauty, quite seriously. Of course a woman has to have a bit of black and blue eye makeup. But the point is, very few emeralds.
Customs vary, and account for much foolish misunderstanding. When Huang reached for his champagne glass he picked it up with the thumb inside the rim and his fingers outside. Just as Americans pick a file folder out of a cabinet file. Americans grab the stem, like a lifeline or a fishing rod with a 175-tarpon on the end of it.
If there is variation even in wine glass holding, who knows how the daily texture of life varies in such distant countries? Babe Ruth may mean nothing. Horseshoes - would they know what a leaner is? And all the things they know automatically over there, we must be ignorant of.
After the apricots and toasts - there are always a few toasts from people of no special function who get carried away by the spirit of it all - the group adjourned to the Persian Room, with its mirrored dome like a burning crown.
It was there the lady collapsed while talking with Zahedi. It was nothing he said. I was told she had had an exhaustive trip from London and was plain tuckered out - probably would never have come, tired as she was, except few turn down the Irainian embassy functions.
Sen. Bayh, who had been right in the middle of how he was thinking of 800 million Chinese, was the first to comprehend the situation. He leapt to help and within a second two others were with him lifting her up.
Now there was no consultation. Not even eye contact. With one accord the three men lifted her upsy daisy just as she had been. (Zahedi and a reporter contributed to this levitation.)v. hy? If it had been a broken back or heart disorder or brain lesions then bouncing her up would be contraindicated. We know that now. But in the crisis, men act with one accord, because there is something intolerable about a handsome woman collapsed at your feet. Outside a fantasy.
Curiously enough I had heard the anthropologist, Colin Turnbull lecture at George Washington shortly before this dinner on shared values in a society and how these affect the art of the theater. He cited the Ik, a wretched tribe so demoralized that there is no "instinctive" compassion or fellow-feeling among them.
Thert, he said, they laugh when a baby toddles into a fire.
The ambassador, the senator, and the reporter were not Ik. The woman may have been a stranger, but nobody had to think twice. I do recall wondering as I marveled at the limp form against me. If the woman would have wanted to be touched by even three such handsome fellows, but at least our motives were pure and good however, medically unsound.
We were pleased to see her good as new, for several seconds, until she collapsed again. I saw the utter grief on her face as she perceived she was fainting again, and knew she could not prevent it.
This time she was gently moved elsewhere, hovered over by the Iranian ambassador who assured her all was well, and where she could regain her pins without embarassment. I like to think she sensed the feeling of the room, which was right along with her among the Chinese as well as anyone else. Everyone could put himself in her place. There was precisely no doubt of that.
And yet hardly anyone really knew her. And those who raced over and those who worried were from quite different backgrounds with quite different aims.
When Bayh had proposed his toast, it sounded a trifle simple to me - as if he took no account of the two nations orgainized so differently. But after the lady fainted, and I saw how unanimous the room was on her behalf I thought maybe the senator was not so simple after all.
Of course much else went on. Much is conveyed by silence, by the avoidance of topics: much is meant by tone or by eyebrow as you might say. (David Brinkley was there)
Some things are conveyed apart from words. Often I notice a reporter is at last a drum, on which the hammers fall preferably bound in felt.
It is hard to convey - not that I am trying to apologize for reporters - by words the complex lines of force the slight tensions the sudden perceptions or the failure to notice the obvious. These Washington ritual events, so full of ceremony and politeness, are rarely simple, and a great deal is totally unknown. Each person knows something the other does not know. It is very like Kafka, only the food is better and one hopes for the best possible ending.
What is to be made of Ambassador Huang's comment that he will visit Ambassador Mike Mansfield in Tokyo before going to Peking? Try raveling that out through an interpreter at a formal dinner.
So here we are back at the beginning and must decide what is relevant. Knowing that even the feeblest grope for accuracy is going to have to get into "irrelevant" matters like the fainted lady.
Like your good mechanic the reporter taps the windshield back in place (so all may see clearly) with his little hammer.