Nancy Reagan's new press secretary says Washington shouldn't worry that the Californians will be invading it.
"We're not. It won't be like the communists," laughs Robin Orr, 56, columnist for The Oakland Tribune whose appointment as Mrs. Reagan's chief spokesperson was announced yesterday.
Orr learned Saturday that she had gotten the $38,000-a-year White House job, though she had not yet spoken to her new boss about it. Earlier in the week aides of the president-elect invited her to Los Angeles to discuss the position, which will pay some $14,000 a year less than the present occupant, Rosalynn Carter's press secretary, Mary Finch Hoyt, receives. "I didn't ask for a special salary," said Orr.
Orr says she was never personally interviewed for the job by Nancy Reagan, who was with the president-elect at their Santa Barbara ranch most of the week. "Apparently she felt she knew me well enough from our previous encounters," says Orr.
The East Bay society writer is not yet set on all the specifics of the new role she will assume on Dec. 1, but she expects them to be different from those she had known on the other side of the pencil as a working journalist for 30 years.
"I am going to have to keep watching myself because I've always been so open -- a chatty Cathy," she said yesterday in a telephone interview from her home near Oakland. "And I like that kind of association with people. But if I am going to be on the other side I'll have to discipline myself a little differrently."
She says her first allegiance will "of course" be to Nancy Reagan, whom she has covered and admired since 1967, when Ronald Reagan became governor of California. A veteran newspaperwoman who has worked at the Tribune since 1950, Orr says she feels "very friendly with people of the press -- they're my people -- but still . . . "
Orr, a native Californian, came into the newspaper business after a brief career in public relations at two San Francisco department stores. She studied business administration at the University of California's Berkeley campus, specializing in advertising and marketing. (She was a member of the class of 1946 but never got around to applying for her degree until more than 20 years later when it finally was issued over the signature of then-governor Ronald Reagan.)
At The Oakland Tribune, her first job was as editor of teen-age news. Three years later she took over the society column, writing under the name of "Suzette," a nom de plume that she discarded in the 1960s.
A lifelong Republican who cast her first vote for Thomas Dewey in 1948, Orr said she was active in politics on the Berkeley campus.
"I was part of a conservative student action group that investigated the communists -- you know they had communist cells at Berkeley from the 1930s. We knew who was doing what," she says.
It was "hard" to get complete proof, she remembers, but her group had some records from the FBI, though they did not lead to too much "except that we were just surprised."
One young woman in particular still stands out in Orr's memories of those days.The woman started out at Scripps, then went to UCLA and finally arrived at Berkeley, where she joined a sorority. Orr, who was a Sigma Kappa, recalls how the woman made a "big play" of denouncing the sorority and how she went on to denounce the university regime.
"Those people would infiltrate the newspapers, too," she says. "I don't know that I was able to do very much. It was just that we were cognizant of the fact that the communists' modus operandi was to infiltrate and create dissatisfaction in the existing regime, thereby weakening it and making people in the area more receptive to a different way of thinking."
She says she thinks communism is "present" today on the Berkeley campus, though "they're not surfacing the way they did." She feels that what happened in the 1960s, "the chaos and riots," was communist-inspired "definitely." She says she thinks governor Reagan acted responsibly when he sent in the National Guard to put down campus unrest.
"They had to be contained . . . it was like war."
Orr began covering the Reagans when they arrived in Sacramento, first at the inaugural events and later as Nancy Reagan became an active supporter of volunteer programs involving the elderly and severely handicapped children.
Orr also wrote about Nancy Reagan's efforts to acquire antiques for the new Governor's Mansion, construction of which was started under the Reagans after they judged the old mansion inadequate. They never got to live in the new residence, however, and Gov. Jerry Brown later refused to move in, claiming it was an extravagance.
While Orr does not know yet what plans Nancy Reagan has for the White House, she says she is sure she will not disturb anything that is "already good."
Orr's beat has been Northern California society, which she says is an amalgam of three societies: the more sophisticated San Francisco "where they emulate the Louvre," the academic Berkeley "what we call Berserkley" and the more family-oriented Oakland and East Bay, which also includes a very active black society.
"They're just beginning to intermingle [with white society] through their support of things like the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Museum," says Orr, adding that "my feeling is that we have one of the elite groups of blacks in the country."
She says a reemergence of a social style as it was known in the 1950s is "a good possibility" under the Reagans. "Nancy Reagan is more like Jackie Kennedy than she is Rosalynn Carter."
Now divorced, Orr has three sons: Scott Boone, 27, an East Bay builder; J. Ryan Boone, 24, a college student, and Jonathan, 17, a high school senior who will not immediately accompany his mother to Washington.