Way down yonder, New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial was predicting that "it might take us more than a decade to recover" from the Mardi Gras that, more or less, wasn't. It won't take that long for 2,640 Washingtonians and Louisianians who survived the Mardi Gras ball that was.
Morial and the French Quarter merchants were worrying about the economic repercussions of a police strike that already has caused the cancellation of nine Mardi Gras parades. But for the Louisiana congressional delegation, which had its annual celebration at the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, it was business as usual... and business mixed with pleasure.
There was no mistaking what the party was for. "It's given to promote the industry of the state," said Dalton Woods, chairman of the Shreveport/Bossier host group that sponsored the pre-ball dinner.
It also was to promote good feelings among the prominent guests who were invited to the 32-year-old ball that has grown into a Washington tradition.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter sang exuberantly with the Marine Band as they played the Marine Hymn at the ball. "As an old Marine I love to hear the band play," he said. "I kept worrying every time the phone rang. Everybody has to get out and have fun once in awhile and I was afraid I would get a call saying I couldn't come. Quite a bit has been happening this week, you know."
That may have been the only understatement in the entire evening of elegant excess.
Silk and satin costumes, sequins and plenty of military brass glittered around tables laden with hundreds of pounds of shrimp and thousands of oysters, with smoked duck and crab fingers and venison and seafood gumbo and etouffee -- southern bounty coupled with Cajun culinary expertise.
The stage marquee in the ballroom twinkled out the evening's theme, "Louisiana's Heritage," in flashing lights over the shining throne of the evening's monarchs -- white-mustachioed Otto Candies, an oil-industry tycoon, and darkly lovely Elizabeth Boggs, granddaughter of Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.).
Rhinestone tiaras floated by while the satin-masked members of the Mystik Krewe gamboled among the crowd tossing out a blizzard of trinkets.
The Mystik Krewe of Louisianians are the Washington cousins of the more than 65 krewes back home whose job it is to organize Mardi Gras festivities. The membership is traditionally a secret, although it is now acknowledged that Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) is the captain emeritus of the Washington krewe. The bestknown secret of the present krewe, is that the captain may be "a certain representative from the eighth district in Louisiana" (Rep. Gillis W. Long).
Not only do the krewes organize the balls and parades, they also pay for them. It is estimated that the Louisianians' three-day Washington bash may cost as much as $2 million. The honor of King of the Ball is doubleedged, too, since his personal expenses can run from a minimum of $10,000, up to $50,000, according to some reports. While a good portion of the money is out of pocket, the host groups for the various dinners and parties share the cost. The 22 members of the Shreveport/Bossier group shelled out $1,000 apiece for their party and received additional funds from eight corporations and the Chamber of Commerce.
"When our expenses get over that original amount, we'll just split up the remaining costs among ourselves," said chairman Woods.
It's not certain that all of this extravagant Southern hospitality will melt the frosty Yankee politicians who are less than hospitable to the oil lobby, but, then, it's not a given that it won't encourage a slight thaw, either.
"It's just like a Yankee to wonder how much a thing like this costs," said Moon Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, to a northern guest. "We don't care about that. We just do this for a good time and to give our friends a good time."
Among the friends were Rep. A1 Ullman (D-Ore.) and Rep. Richard T. Schulze (R-Pa.), members of the House Ways and Means Committee; White House adviser Anne Wexler and her husband, Joseph Duffey. chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (D-Mass) who escorted Queen Elizabeth to her throne; Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, whose agency oversees Louisiana's lucrative oil and natural-gas industries.
For those who had attended in the past, the ball lived up to the expectations. "It is a great spectacle and event," said former Attorney General Elliot Richardson. For the newcomers, it was a surprise. "Have you ever seen anything like this?" whispered one Washingtonian to a friend. (She hadn't).
Another initiate was Livingston Biddle, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who admitted that he was quite amazed by the procession. Adaptability is a prerequisite for his post, however, and it wasn't long before he was joining in the spirit of the evening, waving for the trinkets that were raining through the air and scooping up doubloons with all the fervor of an eager bridesmaid in pursuit of the third bridal bouquet. "For the grandchildren," he smiled as he pocketed the loot.
"That grasping, 'hey-mister' spirit of avarice is all a part of this," said Mississippian Hodding Carter, who was also a newcomer to the delegation's ball but who knows something of the tradition because, "my family came from New Orleans."
"You see what you're missing living this far north?" John Oliver, mayor of Sunset, La., asked. "This is pretty good," he allowed. "In fact, it is an excellent reproduction of what we have in Louisiana."
"This is even wilder than we have at home," said New Orleans resident Margaret Fuller.
At the pre-parade ceremonies Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), the ball's first female chairman, welcomed the guests and introduced the Louisiana festival queens, who come from small towns throughout the state and represent everything from catfish to cotton, not to forget crawfish, soybeans and pecans. These early ceremonies were an exercise in proud boosterism for all the industries in Louisiana and everyone got into the spirit. Some random phrases from around the room: "Real Americans," "free enterprise," "hard work" and, "If anyone can save this country, it's the South."
In the ballroom parade the purple, green and gold standard of Mardi Gras led off, followed by the king and queen on their float. As granddaughter Elizabeth went by waving to her subjects, Rep. Boggs said, "Elizabeth has been just wonderful about all of this. It's so nice to be a grandparent -- you can brag."
After the parade came the Marines, who were joined in song by the audience as they played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (Yankee lyrics were sung by all), the national anthem and the "Marine Hymn."
The Mystik Krewe "called out" the ladies as softly colored spotlights dipped and waltzed around the room. Not quite accustomed to the tradition wherein only Krewe members are allowed to dance with the women they choose from the audience for the first few dances of the ball, many of the northern guests joined in.
Nobody seemed to care.
It was an evening from a Gothic Revival romance -- lights were soft, ladies were pretty, the men were proud and everybody was nice. It didn't matter that one southern politico lambasted an inquisitive northern reporter... he asked her to dance only 20 minutes later. And never mind that the present mayor of New Orleans was the subject of emphatic cussing by another eminent public servant of the great state of Louisiana. That was just politics. And what would Louisiana be without politics?
Even the politics discussed Saturday night had the easy tone of the familiar, not the strident chatter of issueplagued gatherings. People were pumping hands and pumping for information and leads and support. At least four "next-governors-of-Louisiana" were there making their way around.
When talk turned to the Ayatollah's Iran, people wondered about a bigger role for Louisiana in oil production. As for Mexico, just across the Gulf from the Pelican State, folks agreed that we shouldn't have to put up the big bucks they are asking for their natural gas. Money, not ideology, was hanging in the air as heavily as Spanish Moss.
One Washington entrepreneur discussed the intricacies of dried croaker export to Japan with Lt. Gov. James E. Fitzmorris, who was encouraging about support for the venture.Said the future industrialist, "I will bring down 100 men (to Louisiana) and they will each contact 500 voters and we will get them to vote for you." Fitzmorris thumped his back and laughed heartily.
For the most part, the politicians and industrialists winding up a three-day series of Mardi Gras-North activities that had included dances and banquets every night, working breakfasts and lobbying lunches, were ready to enjoy an evening artfully designed for just that. World matters would still be there tomorrow.
And what about that other Mardi Gras? That, indeed, might not be there tomorrow or the next day when they returned to New Orleans. That didn't seem to bother many either.
"The parades are just for the tourists -- all the Louisianians are more interested in the costume balls," said one woman.
"I've only gone to the parade a few times to take the children," added another long-time resident.
The mayor of one of the outlying delta towns, "in Cajun country," said that he was looking forward to "the best Mardi Gras we've ever had. New Orleans doesn't have all the parades."
But for others, the Washington Mardi Gras on Saturday may take on an even more significant meaning.
"We've never come to this one before," said one young couple from New Orleans. "We're really glad we did. We're having a grand time and it looks like it will be the only Mardi Gras we will get."