THINKING SHE KNEW all about the above-the-law attitude in the Nixon White House, Miss Manners found herself freshly shocked during the film of Charles Colson's autobiography, "Born Again." About to set out for a state dinner at the White House, the then counsel to the president answers his wife's questions about protocol by saying, "Honey, the way you look, you can break all the rules of protocol you like."
As the ensuing dinner is not shown, Miss Manners is unclear about how much license Mrs. Colson was able to take on the strength of her blond pageboy and chiffon dress. Did she, for example, go bounding upstairs with President and Mrs. Nixon and their guests of honor to drop in on the private reception customarily held before their appearance before the other guests in the East Room? Did she brush aside any of the feebler Supreme Court Justices to step into the receiving line before her husband's rank permitted? Did she mischievously change around the place cards to find herself a more compatible dinner partner?
Miss Manners remembers those Nixon administration state dinners, and does not recall their being characterized by breezy informality. In fact, Miss Manners was left with the impression that the same people who later confessed to having broken the law were the ones most careful not to trangress the slightest rule of rank in front of their boss, let alone to allow their underlings to ignore their rank in the interests of spontaneous fellowship.
Miss Manners also often hears this sort of hypocritical bad-mouthing of protocol by those who enjoy it most. In fact, the attitude strikes Miss Manners as designed to draw possibly envious attention away from that enjoyment. It is like complaining about the terrible burden of being rich.
Protocol is merely etiquette with a government expense account, and is not to be sneered at. (Some people try to sneer at etiquette, too, but Miss Manners is putting a stop to that.) If one is to have several hundred people to dinner at the taxpayers' expense, as presidents often do, it is necessary to impose a pattern on the event for organizational purposes, or the place will end up looking like a children's birthday party. The White House often does anyway, what with people madly grabbing match books and menu cards as party favors.
And if that pattern corresponds to certain known rules, so that people know what is expected of them, and has some ceremony and tradition to it, so that it is pleasant and attractive, so much the better.
Miss Manners Responds
Q: Now don't get me wrong.I am really a very proper person. I give to the March of Dimes and I don't put razor blades in apples on Halloween. So forgive me, Miss Manners, if my voice becomes shrill as I tell you this story.
My roommate was engaged to be married a year ago and asked me to be her bridesmaid. I tried my best, Miss Manners, really I did. For an entire year I chauffered her around to photographers, addressed invitations, and planned menus. (Are salmon toasts suitable for a 3 p.m. reception, or is it more fashionable to have pink cottage cheese molded into the shape of a lamb?) I was forced to buy a hideous red bridesmaid's dress trimmed with cotton strawberries for $85. Red shoes to match for $35. And in July, I spent $25 on a bridal shower after I found her copy of Emily Post tactfully left open to the page which stated that this was my social obligation. But I drew the line when she told me to buy four pink plastic midget carnations for my hair at $18 a pair. No, I said, and stood my ground. No? She was incredulous. Hadn't I agreed to be her bridesmaid? Didn't I understand that it was her inalienable right to deplete my bank account of its entire contents, to render me poverty stricken in the name of social propriety? Tell me, Miss Manners, did I behave badly? I fear that I am unfit for polite society.
A: Or vice versa. Miss Manners congratulates you on your social fortitude. Miss Manners herself would have cracked before you did. At the pink cottage cheese, to be exact.