The television cameras were ready. Several microphones had been taped to the podium. The Washington Press Club audience nibbling on cheese and carrots, waited last night to hear from Miss Lillian.
About her son, the president, of course, but also about her younger son, Billy. Last week, Billy Carter captured headlines again when he escorted a group of Libyan officials through Georgia, uttering remarks that have been criticized by some as anti-Semitic and urinating at the Atlanta airport while waiting for the Libyans to arrive.
Just before Miss Lillian arrived at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, a woman whispered to her companion, "Do you think it would be polite to ask her why Billy can't speak proper English?"
Politeness reigned. Miss Lillian, dressed in a blue floor-length shirt-waist dress and shunning a bourbon and water from the bar, was treated with kid gloves -- just as in a small town where the neighbors know what has happened but avoid bringing up a painful subject by talking about the weather.
"I just left Jimmy and he said, 'Mother, be prepared,' and I said, 'Prepared for what?' I know you wouldn't ask me anything nasty," said Miss Lillian, looking for reassurance from the crowd. There were laughs.
For the first half hour, the president's mother showed slides from her trip last year to the Sahel, the drought-stricken region of West Africa, and she described her 34-minute meeting with the late Pope Paul VI, joking about the tight pantyhose she wore to that meeting.
"Where are you going next," asked the first questioner when the lights came back on. She said she had been attending state funerals recently, and sounded disgruntled.
Three questions later, after a question on Bella Abzug, the topic of Billy Carter and his behavior was broached. A few in the audience moaned loudly but all listened.
"That's a difficult question for a mother to answer," she said slowly. "I've tried to raise them right and proper, to do what's best, to live with God's help. I can't control what they do when they are grown. Billy loves everybody and I believe him when he says that. If he has offended anybody, I hope it doesn't hurt."
Quickly, like the hostess retrieving her guest from an embarrassing moment, a hand shot up. Miss Lillian was asked "How much time do you spend in Washington?" The answer, "No more than I have to." One question later, Billy again. "Weren't you once quoted as saying Billy was your favorite child?" "Oh, I've said that about all of them at one time or another. I don't always agree with what they say but I don't have to."
On her way out, Miss Lillian said that the president, whom she said was wearing jeans and was barefoot, had not discussed Billy Carter's recent exploits. And she insisted she hadn't talked to Billy.
On other subjects, she said she and the president had a $5 bet on the Super Bowl game this Sunday. She's for the Pittsburgh Steelers and she offered her opinion on the cheerleaders' costumes. "If my daughter was out there, I would hope she would freeze to death."