What a fairyland it was: parties, presents, a new salary and a job at the White House. "I felt like Cinderella," said Robin Orr, who was Nancy Reagan's press secretary for 28 fleeting days.
But then, like a foreigner in a strange, puzzling kingdom, Orr found herself bewildered by the customs of the natives. "The only thing I can say," she said yesterday by phone from her home in Orinda, Calif., "is that when you are a somebody in Washington, and you say anything to anybody, it just gets blown out of all proportion. . .
"When I was interviewing with [Reagan aide] Mike Deaver, at one point he said, 'At some times, it'll be a 24-hour job,' and I said facetiously, 'Oh -- do I get a cot at the White House? Well, he took it as a joke, but I made the mistake of repeating this to some other people, and suddenly, I was this lady who wanted to move into the White House. . .
"You can't," Orr asked incredulously, "make a joke?"
Orr, the 56-year-old Oakland Tribune society columnist who was given her White House job Nov. 15 and then relieved of it Dec. 13, has become the first casualty of an administration not yet in office. She wasn't fired, she says, but instead was given a job with the International Communication Agency in San Francisco at a salary promised to be "considerably higher" than the $38,000 she was to have made as press secretary.She made $30,000 after 30 years at The Oakland Tribune.
"I am very happy because I have a job in my own beloved California," she said, adding that this will enable her to watch her 17-year-old son play college sports next year. She also said that Deaver offered her the ICA job last week while the Reagans were in Washington for their second visit since the election.
"I don't remember exactly when we talked about it," she said, "but I do know it was before these incidents that everyone seems to be making such a big flap over." These incidents included Nancy Reagan's mention of keeping a gun and a report that she wanted the Carters to move out of the White House early.
Orr, a native of the West Coast who had never been to the nation's capital until she came with the Reagans in mid-November, is perhaps a classic case of what can happen when two cultures -- those of Washington and California -- mix. Or don't mix. Washington, like California, has long had its own distinct way of doing things.
"I guess," said Orr, who described herself in a recent interview as a "Chatty Cathy," "my reaction is that I just should say less. I've always been a very open, honest person. I have a real fetish about that. I like to tell the truth."
Orr's troubles began Dec. 10 with a report in The Washington Star's "Ear" column claiming she wanted to move into the White House with the Reagans. The same day, Nancy Reagan nonchalantly remarked in a Washington interview that she keeps "a tiny little gun" by her beside. Robin Orr was present at that interview.
And on Dec. 13, Nancy Reagan was reported as wishing the Carters would move over to Blair House in the transition period so that she could begin refurbishing the White House family quarters. That story, by UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas, was attributed to "informed sources." Thomas said later that Orr was not the source.
Both the moving in and moving out stories were denied, and Nancy Reagan did say she probably won't need her gun at the White House. None of the embarrassments could be directly attributed to Orr, but the snippets did seem to indicate a press secretary who was having trouble adjusting to her new job of protector instead of reporter.
And her comments yesterday seemed to indicate that the job of protector was a bit more difficult -- and sensitive -- than she had expected.
During the "tiny gun" interview, "Nancy Reynolds [a key transition aide] and I were both in the room," Orr explained. "What could we have said? She answered the question . . . and Nancy Reynolds is certainly a more seasoned Washington person than I am. What either of us could have done at the particular juncture I don't know. To me, however, I must admit, it didn't seem that bad.
"Perhaps I've been on the other side of the pen too long," she continued. "I know a journalist's job is to get something that will make interesting reading. And I know there's always speculation about things whether they're true or not. . . I feel I haven't been treated well by the press, that they misinterpreted what I said."
Nancy Reagan, she added, "feels terrible" about the recent events. "Mrs. Reagan is just a darling," said Orr.
Orr's new job is as a liaison who greets visitors from foreign countries, although the exact title, responsibilities and salary are still under discussion. As it turns out, ICA officials in San Francisco didn't know that a job in their office had been offered to Orr until a newspaper reporter called Dec. 13 for a comment.
Nancy Honig, who heads the office, said her reaction to the reporter's call was "shock." But, she added, "I understand politics." Honig said she had no idea what Orr's responsibilities might be, but did say that "Robin has assured me that I will keep my job."
So now, while Nancy Reagan's transition office worries about selecting a new press secretary, Orr is worrying about what to do with all her party presents. Orr was feted at three celebrations after her appointment -- one for 300 people at Trader Vic's near Oakland, one for 24 women at socialite Anne Getty's apartment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, and one at Washington Star reporter Joy Billington's home.
With the parties, the one at Trader Vic's in particular, came gifts -- luggage, cologne, a traveling clock, a necklace.
"Now I'm wondering whether I should return the gifts," said Orr. "But I haven't decided. I phoned one of my friends who planned it, and I said I really ought to return them, and she said, 'Oh, that'll make everyone so sad.'"