There has been a lot of criticism about President Carter's failure to go to Marshal Tito's funeral. The White House has reacted strongly to the criticism and various spokesmen in the administration have been ordered to go out and defend the president's decicision.

"It all boils down to a question of signals," the administration spokesman in charge of leaking to columnists said. "President Carter was terribly saddened by the marshal's death but if he went to Tito's funeral, he would be sending the wrong signal to Moscow."

"How's that?" I said.

"If Carter had appeared in Belgrade, he would have had to say hello to Leonoid Brezhnev, and if he had said hello to him. Brezhnev would have gotten the message that the United States was not as upset about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as we really are."

"Why didn't Carter go to Belgrade and not speak to Brezhnev? This would have been a stronger signal as to how we felt about the aggression."

"Yes, but our allies would have been very upset if Carter didn't speak to Brezhnev at the funeral, because it would have been a signal that Carter wanted to rekindle the cold war."

I said, "Carter wouldn't have had to discuss Afghanistan with Brezhnev. He could have kept the conversation light by talking about Cuba."

"Believe me," the spokesman said, "this decision was given a great deal of thought. At first we believed the president should go, if for no other reason than this would be a signal that the U.S. would not tolerate any Soviet interference in Yugoslavian affairs. But we felt we could send the same signal by shipping over Vice President Mondale and Miz Lillian."

"Apparently, the Yugoslavs didn't get the signal," I said. "They thought Carter stayed home for political reasons and didn't care if Tito had died or not."

"If they got that out of it, then there was a mix-up of signals. The president was very heartbroken by Tito's death, and if it hadn't been for Brezhnev deciding to go to Belgrade, Mr. Carter would have been one of the chief mourners. The other consideration was that the president can't be photographed looking sad at this time as this would be a signal to everyone that things are worse than most people think they are."

"I guess your problem in the White House now is to send another signal to the Yugoslavs asking them to disregard the previous signal concerning the president's absence, so they won't send a signal to Moscow saying they want to be friends."

"We're working on that now," the spokesman admitted. "The president is going to Italy next month, and probably will visit Belgrade to make up for his failure to say goodbye to Tito last week. He'll lay a wreath on Tito's grave, which is a pretty strong signal to the Soviets to keep their cotton-pickin' hands off Yugoslavia."

"Do you think the Yugoslavs will get over their hurt that Carter never came to the funeral?"

"Yes," he said, "as long as we explain to them that Tito would have wanted it that way."