They almost looked like one big intimate family sitting down to an elegant Sunday brunch at the French Embassy, with nothing more serious on their minds than whether to follow up the smoked salmon with the pate de maison and whether to have two desserts or four.
Certainly there were no outward signs that their differing opinions on the economy, foreign policy or energy resources are the kind over which elections are won or lost. Families en masse, in fact, are not always as well behaved as the 60 or so guests of Ambassador Francois de Laboulaye and his wife, Antoinette. "We thought it was a good idea to see old and new friends. We have friends everywhere," said Laboulaye.
Alexander Haig's confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee probably generated the most discussion.
Retired Army Gen. Brent Scowcroft called the hearings "the Haig show" and could not remember a better performance by his old West Point classmate. "He walked just the right line," said Scowcroft. "You have to go back to John Foster Dulles to find someone with Gen. Haig's grasp of global issues," said Robert G. Neumann, head of the transition's State Department team.
Ambassadors in the crowd, such as Moroco's Ali Bengelloun, who aren't diplomats by accident, joined in the chorus. "It's time to have a very strong secretary of state," said Bengelloun, voicing alarm over "what Libya's Qaddafi is doing in Chad. Merger? Why, it's like an annexation."
At least one guest seemed to be doing everything he could to keep the Haig hearings on track. When Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Charles Percy (R-Ill.) wasn't on the telephone for word from a meeting that National Archivist Robert Warner was having with Nixon lawyers about the release of logs and indexes of the Watergate tapes, he was scribbling notes from a conversation with legal eagle Lloyd Cutler.
The subpoena route was one Percy said he didn't want to take at the outset because it immediately launches judicial proceedings. But if Nixon's lawyers decided to refuse, Percy said he was ready to issue a subpoena calling the archivist before the committee today at 2 p.m. to explain why he was not releasing the documents.
"There aren't that many issues here," said Percy, pocketing his little white note card. "It's either yes -- or no."
There seemed to be a moratorium on partisan discussions about the economy. "Oh, sure, we agree on many things," said Secretary of the Treasury G. William Miller, emerging from a particularly cordial huddle with Arthur Burns, a Reaganite whose fiscal advice to the president-elect would be not to waste a minute before outlining his economic and foreign-policy programs to the American public. "I'd like to see him announce them on Jan. 20 and no later than Jan. 21," Burns told a reporter earlier.
"I hope they have a honeymoon," Miller continued wryly, "though it seems to be evaporating. It may be the only administration in history with a 100-day pre-inaugural honeymoon."
Not far away, Scowcroft, who succeeded Haig as Henry Kissinger's National Security Council deputy in the Nixon White House, shared a table with Louise Cutler, Helen Burns, Karen Hildalgo and Bernice Smith. A consultant who never left Washington after the last Republican hurrah, Scowcroft said he is not "prominently" playing a role in the transition and professed not to know what's ahead.
One thing he did know -- and the heads of those listening nodded approvingly -- is that living and working in Washington "gives you a sense of fulfillment you don't get anywhere else."
"I think having Potomac Fever is perfectly all right," said Helen Burns, wife of the former Federal Reserve Board chairman. She wouldn't dream of seeing a doctor about her own longstanding case of it. "What I don't like is that term 'where the action is.'"
Louise Cutler, whose husband, Lloyd, has left the White House as counsel to the president but still enjoys "insider" status, said no small part of it is the ego gratification that comes with being at the center of power.
"We're staying forever," said Karen Hildalgo, whose husband, Secretary of the Navy Edward Hildalgo, intends to practice law here after Jan. 20.
"That's how Washington grows," said Scowcroft. "Nobody ever leaves."