It was somewhere between the presentation of the Gumbo Queen and the first few two-steps of HUD Secretary Moon Landrieu ("Whaddya expect? I can't only build houses, I can dance") that Sen. J. Bennett Johnson (D-La.) dryly observed: "Mardi Gras could almost blot out a war."
Suddenly it began drizzling plastic trinkets. Moments later, the military brass struck up "Glory Hallelujah" as the Republic and particularly Louisiana, seemed a very fine place indeed.
Just like down home, there was plenty of room in the Washington Hilton's International Ballroom on Saturday night for a litle merriment. In fact, an astounding amount of merriment, generated by 3,500 Louisianians (the easiest way to say it is fast) who flew up for the 33rd year of what has become the clamorous tradition of a Washington Mardi Gras.
That amounts to five days of drinking, eating, dancing and back-slapping. And politicking. Lots of politicking.
"It's our No. 1 sport," explained Rep. W. Henson Moore, the Republican from Baton Rouge who's being talked up as a possible challenger to the powerful Sen. Russell Long. "Whenever you've got more than two Louisianians in a room, you've got politics. When you've got 3,000 Louisianians in a room, you've got politics beaucoup."
And when you've got three Louisianians in newspaper headlines on bribery allegations, you've got a minor political holocaust.
Which is what happened among the celebrating Louisiana pols and their friends after an FBI bribery investigation into their state surfaced midway through this northern version of the New Orleans bacchabal. Using undercover men posing as Prudential Insurance Co. agents with underworld ties, the investigation has implicated one reputed Louisiana organized crime boss and two state politicians described by one shocked official as "straight shooters."
As state Sen. Thomas Hudson, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, summed up the controversy surrounding reputed organized crime boss Carlos Marcello, Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris and former gubernatorial candidate Louis Lambert: "This is a blow. Needless to say, it's been the talk of Mardi Gras."
And from one unidentified Louisiana soul, who described himself as a lifelong politico: "It's scared the hell out of me."
And finally, from New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial: "It's too bizarre to comment on. I know the Prudential Insurance Co. It's like the Rock of Gibraltar. Don't they have a commercial where they take care of all of your needs?"
But in the midst of the politicking, there was still time for frolicking. The mayor was later seen draped in multicolored beads and trinkets. And laughing heartily.
Mardi Gras North, highlighted by the gorgeous chaos of the mammoth ball on Saturday night, got started back in 1945 by a group of Louisianians homesick for the bayous, Spanish moss and Shreveport gossip. Now it's grown to the point where the folks back home fly up for it, bringing their Soybean and Sauce Piquante Queens as well as lots and lots of their money.
That amounts to more than $2 million, figures Moore, 1980 chairman of the five days of hedonism. But then, it's a nice little way to help promote Louisiana industry, most notably oil, among the Yankee politicians and friends.
And then too, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
"I haven't gone to bed before three o'clock in the morning," said Moore, who wore a white tie and tails and said "not me" to suggestions he might challenge Long. "Nobody parties like a Louisianian."
"You go from a breakfast to a brunch to a lunch to a dinner," said Rep. John Breaux, the wholesome-looking Democrat from Crowley. "I've gained about 15 pounds. It's really embarrassing."
"Hello, beautiful," said an older man to a sweet young thing.
"I love you," said another older man to a sweet younger thing he apparently hadn't met before.
"Tell my husband, tell my husband, he paid for it," cried Mel Schiro, responding to a compliment about her floor-length, gold sequin and black feather dress. "No ERA, no ERA. It was $600. That's for all the spaghetti I cook for him. See how fat he is?"
The merrymaking is organized by the Mystik Krewe of Louisianians, the Washington kinfolk of the more than 65 krewes back home whose job it is to organize the real Mardi Gras down there. Membership in the Washington club numbers about 325 and is secret, although a badly kept one, in a town that thrives on telling them.
Long, for instance, is the captain emeritus of the krewe. The present one is said to be Rep. Gillis Long, a Democrat who's regarded by some as a "comer" in Washington politics.
Anyway, the krewe members traditionally lead the pageant of floats, queens and Louisiana rah-rah through the ballroom, flinging plastic "throws," or beads, to every Louisiana accent that utters the traditional cry of "Hey, Mister, throw me something."
Not that you have to be a Louisianian to scream.
"Hey, Mister, throw me something," yelled Austin Kiplinger, the Washington publisher who identified himself as a Cajun.
Echoing Kiplinger's cry, was Esther Coopersmith, the Democratic fundraiser who said she never heard such things on the farm back home in Wisconsin.
The krewe members wear, among other shades, hot raspberry, peach and banana-toned polyester that's shiny enough to look like satin or silk. And what with the dazzling sequins and flowing Scotch, nobody much misses the real thing anyway.
After the krewe members came the festival queens, generally hometown ladies from small Louisiana jambalaya to frogs to pecans to peaches to crawfish.
Their costumes are designed accordingly. Miss Fur & Wildlife, for instance, had appliqued alligators, ducks, water reeds and other, unidentifiable aquatic life jumping around on the 10-foot chain behind her.
There are 29 queens but maybe twice that many festivals, so, as Moore explained it: "We swap 'em." In other words, the festivals that get to send queens are rotated yearly, although certain older festivals, like soybean, rice and dairy, get to come every year.
"Oh, my God, it is the thing," said Beth Brown, a senior at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches who has tried for five years to make it as a queen to the Washington Mardi Gras.
She tried, unsuccessfully, for Miss Yambilee, Miss Pican and Miss Holiday in Dixie. But this year she was rewarded, coming in first as a jubilant Miss Soybean. She spent a good portion of Saturday night dancing in the arms of a young military man.
Then there was Miss Crawfish, one Faye Guidry, who said she's sort of related to Ron the baseball pitcher and doesn't mind being identified as a crustacean.
"I don't live with one," she rationalized at the Queen's Breakfast, one of countless after-ball parties that fizzled their way into the small hours. "Everybody knows crawfish. I feel privileged."
Among the in-town guests were presidential adviser Sarah Weddington, the ambassadors of Canada and Japan, Chuck and Lynda Robb, several congressmen, former New Orleans mayor Landrieu, and Treasury Secretary G. William Miller. Miller was head of Textron Inc during the time that the conglomerate is alleged to have made more than $5 million in improper payments to government officials.
So, has he done anything wrong? Miller was asked.
"Not tonight," he responded, waving to the passing queens. "This isn't the place to discuss it. It's too complicated." And with that, he emitted a loud, joyous cry that can only be captured on paper as "Woooooooooooo."
Catty-corner from him was David Treen, the representative who's about to be sworn in as the first Republican governor Louisiana has seen since Reconstruction.
He didn't have much to say about the FBI, but he did enjoy talking about Republicanism in an almost wholly Democratic state. "My election doesn't necessarily mean the Republican party has gained ascendancy as a political force in Louisiana," he said. "But it does mean that a Republican is not condemned to defeat."
A Democrat nearby, this one Bennett Johnston, had some other thoughts.
"In Louisiana," he drawled amiably, "we're very broad-minded. We don't regard Republicanism as a disease that affects the body politic. Rather, we consider it a hangover that we'll get over."
By midnight, or so, the ballroom started clearing out and there was the usual stampede for the coat checks and the bathrooms. The escalators were mobbed and one woman, holding wrapped boxes and trinkets, nearly disrupted the even flow of people up from the ballroom when she stumbled and fell backwards into the moving staircase. Nobody seemed much bothered by it, though.
As Moore said, translating the French phrase "Les bonnes temps rovler" that's used for Mardi Gras:
"Let the good times roll."