"This is the first majority I've had in Congress in a long while," said President Jimmy Carter last night, smiling at a crowd that included a majority of both houses.
When the laughter died down, he added, "This is a night when we didn't use any computer analysis on the guest list. It's a night when nobody loses and everybody gets rewarded."
Except for the president's own jokes, there were few signs at last night's outdoor party that he is considered to be in deep political trouble -- including trouble with his own party's congressional delegation. He circulated among the guests, flashing his famous smile, shaking hands, engaging in small talk and having his picture taken with anyone who seemed to want it. Behind him some of the most powerful people in Washington formed buffet lines and walked gingerly to the candlelit tables, balancing plates of food and glasses of wine.
The weather, which had been threatening rain, turned out clear but cool for the evening outdoors. June Bingham, wife of Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), congratulated the president on the weather and said she was "glad to see that your prayers worked." The president told her that he didn't pray for that kind of thing, because "I don't want to get in the way of the farmers."
Many of the women present were wearing light summer dresses, although some had brought fur stoles. Mrs. Zbigniew Brzezinski, exposed to the elements in a very low-cut gown, was admonished by a Veteran White House partygoer: "You must be out of your cotton-pickin' mind."
"No," replied her husband, "she's out of her cotton-pickin' dress."
Asked for comments on current events, the president's national-security adviser set a firmly nonpolitical tone for the evening: "Tonight we march on Broadway. Cuba comes later."
The president stood near the beginning of the buffet line, talking with guests until nearly everyone was seated, and for a moment he stood alone. Then he began moving from table to table, shaking hands, in the ploy that professional politicians call "working a room" -- except that in this case the "room" was the south lawn of the White House.
While visiting the tables, he gave a particularly warm greeting to Ella Udall, a strikingly pretty blond woman, with a lingering hug and a kiss on the lips, while her husband, Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) looked on, bemused. Udall is one of the people being pushed as a possible running mate for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) introduced the president to Liz Wickersham, saying, "She won Miss Georgia the same year you won the White House." Later, steering his guest to the buffet line, he said that he "supposed" the occasion was an example of party discipline and added "I'm certainly shaping up the best way I can."
After the president stopped to chat with him en route to his table, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) said that he looked better than he has lately, he had more of the vigor he exhibited last year at Camp David."
Hatfield added that "I don't see how the Democratic Party could repudiate the leadership it has and then seriously go to the people and say, 'Give us another four years' with another candidate."
The president seemed to have firm Republican support in the Senate last night. "He's a tough fighter," said Sen. William Cohen (R-Me.). "He's by no means out of it yet."
But Cohen thought that the entertainment might help to explain the good turnout for the president's reception. "If he has a majority of Congress here, that may have something to do with Marvin Hamlisch -- you invite a lot of people here to see him and you're going to get a good turnout."
Hamlish, who composed the soundtracks for "The Sting" and "The Way We Were" as well as the scores for "A Chorus Line" and the current Broadway attraction "They're Playing Our Song," opened the program at the piano with the Marine Band playing his music. He noted that Robert Redford had starred in both films for which he wrote soundtracks and commented, "It's amazing what any music has done for his career. But I'm not jealous; he's probably at home right now, looking in the mirror and saying, 'I wish I could play the piano like Marvin Hamlisch.'"
He mentioned that he has problems playing his own music at his mother's home because his mother is always playing Gershwin. His mother, Lily Hamlisch, later confirmed that she has a passion for Gershwin, but added beaming at her son, "He's a second Gershwin." "I do the best I can," said Hamlisch modestly.
Comedian Robert Klein used no political material in his standup routine and explained later that this decision was motivated by his "huge desire not to bomb."
A political note was inserted, however, in the final song sung by Lucie Arnaz, who was escorted to the dinner by Philip Anglim, currently playing in "The Elephant Man." The song was called, "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish."
"Speaking of campaigning," she said in her introduction to her song -- looking directly at the president -- "I started campaigning for Broadway the way you started campaigning for here." She emphasized possible political overtones in such lines as "Nobody starts a winner" an "A 100-to-1 shot -- you can call him a klutz -- can outrun the favorite -- all you need is the guts."
House majority leader James Wright (D-Tex.) said he thinks the president is doing better legislatively than is being perceived. Talking about a dinner the president gave last week for nearly 100 members of Congress, Wright said that "overwhelmingly, the tenor and tone was one of accomodation as we reviewed the record that we had achieved together. No one felt threatened. There was friendly candor.
"It didn't mean anything," he said, that House Speaker Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill was one of the no-shows on last night's guest list. According to Wright, O'Neill was in Boston.
Missing from the guest list as well as the reception was Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and another Bostonian, senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "On the way in, somebody told me he wasn't invited," said one of the senator's Republican colleagues, "but I think that was a joke."
Indeed it was, said a White House staffer who did not seem to find it funny: "Everybody in Congress was invited." The guest list had had slightly more than 1,100 names, including about 350 members of Congress. In a departure from previous policy, the White House declined to give exact attendance figures after the event. For several Sundays in a row, actual figures at receptions have been lower than anticipated.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said he thought the president seemed "as relaxed as a president can be when he's entertaining hundreds of congresspersons." Although he has supported Carter on a number of issues, Metzenbaum said he has "not made any future commitment." He said he had avoided an appearance Carter made in Ohio last week because "I'm one of his strongest critics on energy, and I knew he was going to speak on energy."
He said he didn't feel "the least bit uncomfortable" about attending the reception and talking to the president. "If I were uncomfortable, I wouldn't be here."
Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) said he had canceled another engagement to attend last night's party. With him and his wife, Jeannette, was their daughter Nina, 22, a professional dancer. Later, when she met Marvin Hamlisch, he invited her to audition for him in New York.
Carter's congressional liaison, Frank Moore, said that last night's party was one of a series that Carter has given for Congress since he entered the White House and that yet another is planned during the Christmas holidays. Socializing with Congress, he said, allows the White House staff to communicate.
"We've done more on the windfall profits tax tonight," he said, "than we've managed to do in two weeks on the Hill." Picture 2, Sen. Strom and Nancy Thurmond; Picture 3, Lucie Arnax and Robert Klain, by James A. Parcell - The Washington Post