Would you believe that in Washington there exists an organization with several hundred members and no office, no masthead, no dues, and indeed, no name?
Nevertheless, the most recent meeting of the group was held in the Chamber of the House of Representatives, by special permission of the Speaker.
The organization is an informal group of wives from both Houses of Congress and both political parties who join three times a year with diplomatic wives from the State Department and AID. A full morning of substantive briefings on foreign policy is followed by no-nonsense questions from the wives and no-fudge answers from the experts. A brown bag lunch enables the women to get to know one another (blue name-tags signify politics; red ones, diplomacy). A final speaker deals sympathetically with the dilemmas freqently faced by the family of an official whose comings and goings to Washington are at the whim of the voters or the bureaucracy, and not, in any event, of his dear wife (who may not, at such moments, be feeling dear at all).
Founding Mother of the group is Gay Vance, wife of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Typically, he opens the meetings, introducing the subject and the chief speakers. At the May meeting in the House Chamber, he remained afterward for half an hour to hear what the experts had to say.
The galleries for press and the public had been closed, so that reports could be frank, and questions unbuttoned. The subject, Mexico, had been closed by the congressional wives (by written ballort) at a previous meeting on the eight floor of the State Department. Among the 170 congressional wives in the House chamber were sizable contingents from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. True to form, however, there were only a few members in evidence: a total of five skipped part of their committee sessions in order to pop in on thisunusual meetings.
The House majority leader, Jim Wright (D-Tex.), spoke after the secretary of state. Of all members, he isperhaps the most knowledgeable on the subject. "I love the Mexicans," he said simply. "And we Americans have ignored them and been insensitive to their needs. This is harmful to them - and to us."
He went on to compare the geopolitical posture of Mexico to that of a person sleeping next to an elephant: the elephant means you no harm, but look out when it rolls over.
Unintentionally, he thus also capsuled the position of the wifely audience in regard to the institutions served by their respective husbands. These two insititutions, furthrmore, sometimes have an elephant relationship to each other. In Washington, Congress holds the purse strings and therefore the power. On Congressional Delegation (CODEL) trips, however, the State Department is in control of the members' temporarily all-important itinerary and schedule. It is not rare for the chairman of a large delegation on an Air Force plane to receive a message in mid-air that some country is being moved on - or off - the itinerary, for reasons of tact or timing, security or politics. Although theoretically he could gainsay the new instructions, the chances are that he will no.
Gay Vance was exposed to the elephanite weight of Congress when her husband was underscretary of defense under President Lyndon B. Johnson. "People in the executive branch," she says, "are often frightened of Congress. I noticed it when Cy was here before. And it's particularly true of the State Department."
When asked why, she said, "Some members of Congress look down on diplomats. They think of them as elitest or ineffectual or something. They don't stop to realize how much similarity there's between politics and diplomacy, especially in family life. Both have the stresses and strains of moving from somewhere to Washington, both have kids changing schools. With fathers all caught up in their job, andmothers all confused about their role."
She herself had found the the move from New York, she had worked up to being a vice president both of Channel 13 and the Urban League. She gave up these positions lest there be the slightest appearance of conflict with her husband's world-ranging job. "It was odd," she said, "coming here where people are just 'the wife of.'"
Her first step in bridging the gap between Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom was to invite to the Foreign Service Institute a group of congressional wives whose husbands serve on committees concerned with foreign affairs. The occasion was the briefing for newly appointed ambassadors about the lands to which they had been assigned. Until recently the wives of such ambassadors had not been invited to the briefings: husbandly elephants, too, can be remarkably insensitive.
The congressional wives reveled in the occasion. They enjoyed the chance to meet American diplomats, a chance that does not naturally arise in Washington's concentric social circles. The also enjoyed being offered brainfood, in the form of substantive problems and plans.
As a result of their enthusiasm, other, more inclusive briefings were laid on at the State Department. The wives, typically, took notices, and in the course of that evening many a member of Congress became an audience of one, whether captive or volunteer, for a reply of the morning's high points.
"My husband stole the map on Africa we were given," Delores (Mrs. Anthony) Beilenson (D-Calif.) reported to Gay Vance at lunch after the Hill meeting. "He said it was better than any he had seen."
Christine (Mr. L.H.) Fountain (D-N.C.) quoted her husband who, like Beilenson, had been one of the five to come to the Floor that morning, as wishing he were provided with that kind of briefing.
Congressional questions were informed and to the point. Lucy (Mrs. William) Moorhead (D-Pa.), for example, asked: "How come we have a tariff on Mexican tomatoes when our own aer so expensive and waxy?"
The first expert to answer agreed with her, that the tariff should be removed; the second expert pointed to the hazard to American labor from the low wage level of Mexican farm workers. Before long, the experts' arguing with each other gave insight to the wives on how even an apparently simple foreign policy question can have may layers of complexity.
When the diplomatic and congressional wives lunch together, some of the comments have been specific and practical - and not always comfortable for the other side to hear.
Chief complaint on the congressional-wifely side was directed at the diplomatic husbands. For years they have excluded traveling congressional wives from the briefings offered to the members in Washington and the field. Yet the wives too need to be well informed, since it is they, not their husbands, who are seated next to the foreign heads of state or ministers of government at the luncheons or dinners - when, in fact, these dignitaries may be in a mood to let down their guard. This exclusion policy has recently been reversed.
Chief complaint on the diplomatic-wifely side was directed at congressional wives as well as husbands. For years some congressional travelers have taken the diplomatic wives' helpfulness overseas for granted.
Regular meetings of the two wifely groups will continue (the next is scheduled for September, back at the State Department). Already a lasting product of their association has appeared: a Travel Handbook based on the raised unwittingly may have rolled over one or other.
No longer need congressional wives on trips feel that they are looked down on by embassy personnel as mere excess baggage. In the handbook they are asked to list their own field of interest and whether they want a program based on it independent from that of their husband.
No longer need diplomatic wives in the field feel themselves looked down on by CODELs as unpaid servants. "Remember," the handbook says clearly, "that embassy spouses are not employes. If there are spouses at the post, unemployed and able to leave. Children, who volunteer to assist a CODEL visit, they do so as a personal courtesy."
Behind the courtesy of the handbook - and the meetings - lie some forgiven but not forgotten elephantine behaviors of the past. For the future, the hope on both sides is that if people of two sexes in tow branches of th eU.S. government can work with, rather than against, each other, then both can do a better job of improving U.S. relations with the sensitive other peoles of the world.
June Bingham is the biographer of Reinhold Niebuhr and U. Thant. Her husband is Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.) . CAPTION: Picture, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his wife, Gay.
By Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post