"Has he announced yet? Has he announced yet? Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) yelled over the crowd that encircled the ruddy man in the blue suit. No, it wasn't Teddy Kennedy under the flashing lights who had just arrived at the kickoff to the Congressional Black Caucus dinner last night, but Vice President Walter Mondale.
The vice president sounded a lot like the Massachusetts senator. "I'm here on my own," Mondale said when asked whether he was a stand-in for President Carter. "I've often been to the Caucus event, but I am also supporting President Carter and I'm supporting Charlie Rangel." With that and a hearty slap on Rangel's back, Mondale plunged into the party crowd.
"Anybody that seriously looks at the record should realize that this is a damn good president," former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young said. "But that doesn't mean he's solved all the problems of black people, but nobody could in 2 1/2 years. I think people are wrong to write the obituary for this administration."
For some the Caucus' ninth annual legislative weekend, which bears the weighty title of "Children: Mankind's Greatest Resource," became another round of celebrity greeting. Even Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said, "This evening is great fun. I met for the first time a man who has been a special hero of mine for 30 years -- Sugar Ray Robinson."
Some politicians were clearly annoyed that some Caucus members were already taking sides in the 1980 presidential campaign. "What I see more than anything else in the country is a holding pattern by blacks," said Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind. "Some of those who are saying 'Go to Kennedy' haven't talked to him yet. They have no assurances. And we should hold off until we have our own convention."
In some ways the evening was a bit of a disappointment. Fewer than the expected 3,000 people showed, and none of the expected presidential candidates, who were all invited, made an appearance.
With Mondale and Young pledging continued support of Carter, presidential politics dominated the conversation at the Congressional Black Caucus' first official social event of its ninth annual legislative weekend.
The president, often embroiled in an antagonistic relationship with the 17-member black legislative body, had been invited to attend last night's reception but had not been asked to address the group's fund-raising dinner tonight. Yesterday afternoon, the Carters held a reception for black elected women officials and representatives. Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) yesterday called the White House to invite Carter to tonight's dinner, expressing his concern over the riff between the black community and the office of the president.
But the behind-the-scene intrigues with the White House weren't evident as more than 1,000 people jammed the Hilton's vast International Ballroom. The atmosphere was almost like a multi-ring circus full of color and light.
Politicians attracted the usual hordes of cameras and reporters. Women dressed in silk, Iame and fur; men smoking thin cigars and wearing flowers in their lapels. The food was fresh salmon, roast beef, oysters, egg rolls, ribs, cheese, fruits and the ubiquitous cocktail-party meatballs. The entertainment was top name. Teddy Pendergrass, the current singing sex idol, and entertainer Ben Vereen, who had to shout to the noisy crowd, "Put the pork down and shut up."
In various corners of the ballroom, politicians held impromptu press conferences. They all expressed different views on the rifts between Carter and the black community. Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Caucus, reiterated her wish to see Mondale run for president; Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.) gave Carter a plus on foreign relations, a minus on domestic affairs, and Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) said he was against Carter but not for anyone else.
Backed up against a wall by reporters and camera crews, Young reiterated his support for the PLO and said black leadership isn't in tune with the overall black population.
When asked about his future plans, Young said, "No one wanted me to run a country church, no one wanted me to run for Congress, no one wanted me to support President Carter, no one wanted me to be ambassador. And now no one wants me to stop what I'm doing."
Then Young plunged back into the crowd, talking to his successor, U.N. Ambassador Donald McHenry, actor Brock Peters, record mogul Kenny Gamble and singer Oscar Brown.
At workshops, discos and cocktail parties, the anti-Carter sentiment was high among the citizens, politicians and others who make this event the chief bellwether of plack political opinion during the year. But there was no consensus on an alternative to Carter.
Even at the White House, at yesterday afternoon's reception, where the aura of mingling with the president usually erases strong criticism, many of the black women who are elected officials didn't bite their tongues. "I have no question about his sincerity, but now I'm waiting to see what he's really going to do," said Marian McEuilly, a school-board member from Milwaukee. "A lot of people I represent are interested in some delivery."
Among the 200 black women leaders at the reception was Coretta Scott King, whose family was staunchly behind Carter during the campaign. King wore an orange button that said "We support U.N. Ambassador Andy Young," but said she still backed Carter.
"I don't share the view that the president hasn't fulfilled his promises," she said. "He has had a very difficult, almost impossible, task, and he has done admirably under the circumstances."
As Rev. Jesse Jackson went through the receiving line and stopped to speak to Carter, the president's expression changed from a smile to a serious frown. Minutes later Carter moved with Jackson into the State Dining Room, where the two men hid themselves behind the gold curtains of a window and talked for nearly 20 minutes. As they left the room, they stopped and talked for another five minutes.
At first Jackson, who is heading a delegation of black and white ministers to the Mideast next week, joked about the discussion. Then he said they had talked exclusively about the Mideast situation.
"The President thinks Begin should meet with me. Obviously it's Begin's right to see us or not," said Jackson, referring to the Israeli prime minister's refusal to meet with the delegation. "And the president doesn't have any objection to our meeting because he understands our right to do so."
Earlier yesterday, at a luncheon given by the Black Women's Agenda, a national network of elected and appointed women at every level of politics, former Rep. Yvonne Burke, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Eleanor Holmes Norton, Coretta King and National Council of Negro Women President Dorothy Height saluted the leadership of Cardiss Collins, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Collins, in turn, spoke of the political power that black groups can wield. And without mentioning Carter's name, she said, "We had hope. We thought he would do right. But his right thing was not our best thing."
"We are going to vote for who we believe. We are not going to discount Connally. We might ignore no-account Carter," said Elizabeth Stone, a Howard University law professor, to thunderous applause at the luncheon.
"I think the feeling is they (blacks) are going to back Kennedy," said Detroit Judge Evelyn J. Cooper, as 100 people nibbled on ham and turkey sandwiches yesterday before a criminal justice workshop at the Rayburn building. Her friend Judge Theresa Doss interjected, "Coleman (Young), the mayor, is behind Carter. Now whether he has the influence to bring people to support Carter I don't know."
In his acerbic fashion, activist and comedian Dick Gregory held the floor at a fund-raising disco Thursday night for Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) and said, "When the news came over that President Carter had fired Andy Young and that Young was going to campaign for this reelection, I thought, 'I'm dead.'"
Dellums echoed the sentiment by characterizing the "leadership" of the country "as absolutely bankrupt . . . I believe the country is at an incredibly dangerous moment . . . The defense budget is insane." In the rear of the room, Bobby Seale, the former Black Panther leader, started the applause.
The scene was straight out of "Saturday Night Fever" -- open-necked shirts, three-piece suits, slinky women, flashing strobe lights and Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" spun by a deejay in white tails and silver riding boots.
The Hill's only Democratic Socialist, Dellums is convinced that some giant corporations are out to defeat him in his reelection bid. The benefit, he said, "is not something I've normally done, but these are not normal times. These are bizarre times. If the corporations perceive my politics as a significant threat, then they'll run -- and with an incredible amount of money."
The disco crowd, numbering at least 700 in the Hilton's International Ballroom, seemed as interested in dancing as in politics. Rep. Collins danced with John Apperson, Dellums' administrative assistant ("She's very good," Apperson judged. "Up to date. 1979."), and Dellums discoed with his 13-year-old daughter, Piper.
Everyone was looking for the latest disco lessons but a few were able to take some political notes through the din of the music. Vonetta McGee, the actress, was busy shaking hands, finding out the political climate.
"It's very important for me to be here, to lend support, especially before an election year," she said. Having interrupted her Caribbean vacation to participate in the weekend, she emphasized the advantages of black unity.
"Right now I want to be part of the strategy to determine how we are going to use our power bloc," she said.