Rosalynn Carter, the president's wife, took Madame Cho Lin, wife of the visiting vice premier of China, to see the pandas at the zoo yesterday.
The day was dismal gray, a few flakes of snow falling, and all along the outside pen of the Giant Pandas (the size of black bears, after all) were erected low wooded platforms on which a great line of cameramen stood, each by his tripod.
One had the glum impression 86 rabbits were going to be executed and God have mercy on their souls, for those operating the cameras had heads in armor and jaws set for grim tasks.
The wind rose. No need now to visit Siberia ever. A whining moan was heard. Some said it was the elephant.
Before 3:15 p.m., the appointed time, a ragged procession came over the horizon. A man in a windbreaker, some women in black wool, the president's wife hatless and a bit pinched looking from the cold, draped in a grayish-brownish outer garment that caught all the spirit of January.
Cho, her face composed, marched with the rest to the site. Other Chinese in the party, in gray, followed along. One American in brilliant black, a noticeable well-cut suit -- really well turned out -- contrasted with everybody else. Some said he was from the State Department. He looked brisk and competent and stood out from all. He wore no top coat, and all admired his appearance. It is believed he suffered terribly.
And then the hour was at hand.
All faced the low cheerless house. A door opened.
Out came the panda. Shining Star is his name. (In Chinese, he is known as Hsing-Hsing.)
He waddled on all fours down a grassy knoll to 14 bamboo stalks, which had been set in the grass as if growing there.
The wind rose.
As he waddled down to the greenery, in the presence of Sino-American state witnesses, the cameras began to grind. A television announcer could be heard crooning into his machinery the sort of thing one expects of the national box.
And then Shining Star sat down on his rump, seized the first bamboo stalk (10 feet high) and pulled it out of the ground like Arthur with Excalibur. A murmur of admiration was heard. One believed there was hope for the world.
Not everyone can shuck the outer sheath of a phyllostachys or semiarundinaria (there are 30 different hardy bamboos suitable for pandas).
But with the finesse born of immemorial centuries in the austere oriental recesses of Szechuan, the panda peeled the phyllostachys, broke it into neat plumes of salad and (for royalty knows no restraints) began to chomp with his especially fine molars without even casting a glance at the variegated commoners peering at him. Amy, the president's daughter, was among those admiring a real pro at work.
Unlike them, he was done up in fur white as lilies, climaxed here and there with jetty fuzzy ears and patches about the eyes.
The wind rose.But what had been a grim scene began to lighten. Reporters investigated to see if the sun had broken through. (It had not.)
The women and their attendants smiled.
People who had said, "This is the dumbest exercise yet," began to think better of Fate.
Shining Star finished one culm and heaved the next one out of the ground.
The Lesser Pandas in the next lot peered down from the branches where they had been frolicking about trying to look like leopards (they have rufous fur) much as Billy Carter might play Rasputin in the Plains Little Theater.
"By God," said a female press person, "by God," and a certain softness touched her voice.
The elephants and giraffes looked over -- they sensed something notable was going on.
Shining Star was on his third bamboo.
He and his mate (no progeny yet) were gifts of the People's Republic in 1972.
Former president Richard Nixon was conspicuously absent from yesterday's ceremonial viewing of the pandas. Some felt that no matter what one wished to say of Nixon in some areas of leadership, he played a great role in acquiring these pandas and should have been present.
After 10 minutes or so, the official party straggled back toward the horizon into 12 cars, and took off like rockets for the next great event, such as, perhaps, a hamburger in a warm room.
Meanwhile, Shining Star was all deserted.The tripods and photographers packed up and left. Shining Star was on his fifth bamboo.
The wind rose. The great ones come and go. But supper is supper and Shining Star was putting first things first.