The occasion, Thanksgiving; the survey, random. The question: What philosophy or wisdom has sustained you through the years?
The answers, though from disparate sources, were surprisingly similar.
From Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill: "That's easy. I always try to live by the Golden Rule: 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"
From Harold Johnson: "My mother always taught me to treat people the way you want them to treat you." Johnson, 38, is serving a life sentence at Lorton Penitentiary for murder and armed robbery.
Now in his 11th year of imprisonment, Johnson says what sustains him in jail are "hope and my mother."
The philosophy of Vietnam veteran Douglas Slotten: "Having come awful close to not being here, I live to make as much out of each day, in hopes I can contribute in some small way to the overall good of society."
Slotten lost a leg and was blinded in the war, went on to law school, and now is a lawyer for the FCC.
EEOC Commissioner Eleanor Holmes Norton's wisdom: "A kind of endless and unattainable search for excellence, and the encouragement of my husband and family to reach beyond the possible."
Don't take yourself too seriously, says James King, advance man for the 1976 Carter campaign and now chairman of the National Traffic Safety Board. Described by a former member of the Washington press corps as "a master of the bullhorn," King says, "I take my job seriously, but I'm amused at me. It's important not to confuse your mission with your ego.
"I come from a trade-union background, a mill town, brought up in a house where Equal Pay for Equal Work was not a slogan but a commitment, so what guides me also is a sense of social justice."
A similar sense pervades the philosophy of Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.): "A belief in the basic dignity and compassion of the human spirit. To paraphrase Edmund Burke: The people are the masters, and we owe them not just our vote but our conscience."
Former HEW Secretary Joseph H. Califano: "My philosophy is being true to my own beliefs, expressing them and standing up for them. It is recognizing also that other people with different views hold them with sincerity. I try to understand that, although they may be opposite of my own."
From former Gov. Marvin Mandel, convicted of mail fraud and racketeering, living for the last four years with investigations, trials, mistrials, indictments and delays -- litigation so uncommon as to be described by a Harvard law professor as "an aardvark":
"What has sustained me," he says, "is what my parents taught me: to have respect for others; and also to learn that as long as you do what you think is the right thing, what your judgment is saying, at all times you'll be able to live with yourself."
Former Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.), who decided after 18 years in Congress to give up the race and is now a syndicated columnist: "Once you've made a decision, live with it. Work hard, play hard, and put your decisions behind you."
Echoing the credo of the strenuous life is dancer "Penny," who works at a D.C. "all-nude dancers" bar: "I've been doing this for eight years, and my philosophy is working hard, accepting it as a job -- just dancing."
"The job is everything," says hearse driver Douglass Postell, who has been in the funeral business for more than 30 years.
"I love my profession. Every time I go to a cemetery, it's two going -- me and the dead -- and one coming back -- just me. I'm blessed!
"Sometimes I can't see in the rearview mirror because of the body in back, so I look in the side mirror. I see myself, and smile. Lucky me."
Former Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, who was fired last July by President Carter, likens his dismissal from the White House to "going out on parole with time out for good behavior." His philosophy: "Just two little words: Be thyself."
From Abdus-Shaid Mu-min Shabazz Ali 35, another Lorton prisoner, eligible for parole in 1983: "The thing that guides me? To be myself."
A convert to Islam since his conviction (murder and armed robbery) and imprisonment 16 years ago, Ali says religion has given him "a new foundation" and the belief that "we are only saved by the good we do.
"Remember the adage?" he asked. "Something about, 'If God hadn't created man, man would have had to create God.'"
Evangelist Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Va. -- shepherd of a 16,000-member Baptist flock and appearing on more than 300 television stations -- is opposed to ERA, homosexuality, sex education, lack of prayer in public schools, SALT II, and Charlie's Angels: "My peace in life comes from believing in the word of God."
"God is what helped me," says Walter Anderson, a 49-year-old habitue of Dupont Circle park. "Always God. I'm not talking about religion; just God."
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) says in his recent memoirs that as a boy he found inspiration in Ernest Henley's "Invictus," which concludes, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." More recently he has kept in mind Shakespeare's "tide in the affairs of men."
From Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.): "You may never reach a solution, but you're never absolved from the responsibility of trying."