Four bomb threats were phoned into the National Press Building last night, all apparently sparked by a controversial "Arab Night" gala that was whirling away on the 13th floor.But neither the gala nor the building blew up as the 400 guests, all preoccupied with couscous and drink, were politely kept in the dark.
The first call was received about 8 p.m. by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter on the seventh floor. The caller, according to security chief Thomas Tague, announced that the building was going to blow up in four minutes. It didn't.
The next call came about 8:30 p.m. to Mabel Cornett, the desk clerk on the 13th floor, which holds the National Press Club. Seth Payne, the club's board chairman, was standing nearby.
"This will probably go on all night," he sighed.
He was pretty close to right. Another call came into the 13th floor about 8:45 p.m., followed just moments later by a fourth call, to the second floor. Police dogs, who had searched the 13th floor twice during the day, were called to search again. Nothing turned up.
The reason for the threats and controversy actually began last week when Richard J. Maloy, head of the Press Club's speakers committee, accused the organization of "crawling to the Arabs." On Friday, he resigned his post, charging that the club was allowing two Arab League speakers to address some of the membership in return for paying for the $40,000 "Arab Night" gala.
Organizers of the event and Press Club officials scoffed at this.
Last night, as a handful of Orthodox Jews demonstrated outside the Press Club Building, one of these remarked that "I'm beginning to have a persecution complex." This was Dr. Clovis Maksoud of The Arab League, who seemed to forget this complex as he walked into The Press Club's ballroom, which had been transformed into an Arabian pleasure dome for the evening.
Women in Tunisian and Somali wedding dresses floated among men in exotic headdresses eating exotic hors d'oeuvres -- for instance, manaqish bi zaatar, which turned out to be thyme and olive oil on crispy bread. This was quickly snatched up by the Americans, many of whom had a few bites, then stuck the manaqish bi etcetera under the nearest napkin. Meanwhile, men played Middle Eastern instruments in a corner, a calligrapher wrote guests names in Arabic and Jimmy Carter's aides tried to act inconspicuous.
Among the two aides present was Paul Costello, assistant press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. And did he think twice before coming to a controversial all-Arab event?
"Would you like some wine?" he responded.
But back to street level. There, a tiny knot of Jews claimed that the Arabs were buying the Press Club. "I always thought that it should be objective and not influenced by different groups," said Mike Meier, a Silver Spring accountant who said he was representing no one but himself. He helped carry a banner that read "Menorah Says: In God We Trust, Not Arab Oil."
Back upstairs, Arab night was moving right along. "I don't see any oil here," said sabah Kabbani, the Syrian ambassador.
No oil, but lots of food. The King of Morocco chartered a plane and sent over a chef and three assistants to prepare the spread, which consisted of trays and trays of couscous, fattoush (the salad), and khubiz 'arabi (the bread) and knafe bi jibn (the dessert).
All of which went flying through the Press Club kitchen. "I'm nervous," said chef Yassine Mohamed, through a French interpreter. His assistants were furiously running their fingers through bowls of rice. "But I'm leaving the day after. It's going to be over soon."
And then, another catastrophe. The food ran out. Six or seven tables were left without couscous, forcing the Moroccans to serve London broil, French fries and canned peas and carrots. Most guests took this bravely, with the exception of one undisclosed American diner. He strode purposefully toward the head table and former Sen. James Abourezk, one of the gala organizers.
The undisclosed guest, Abourezk said, "raised hell."
Interestingly enough, the man who identified himself as manager of the Moroccans' food service denied that any guest went without couscous. "Everybody got it," he said. Not too far away, half-eaten pieces of London broil and cold French fries reposed on dinner plates.
"Find me one person," said this manager, Mohommed Ali, "who did not get Arabic food."
Drew Von Bergen, president of the Press Club, happened to be within screaming distance. And so, he was asked, did everyone get Arabic food?
"No," he replied. "I think they just dished out too much."
Mohommed Ali thereupon dragged Von Bergen off to the sidelines, where a conference ensued. The outcome went unknown.
It was during dinner that the bomb threats started. District police began to collect near the Press Club front desk, calmly taking reports of each call as they ate dessert and drank coffee. Mabel Cornett, the desk clerk, remained equally serene.
"We go through this every time we have people here who are agitators or who people think are agitators," she said. Nonetheless, she admitted that four bomb threats did pose some unpleasant possibilities.
And, she added, "It's a long way to fall from the 13th floor."