Kathy Noonan stared into her glass of California chablis and decided not to order the Rodeo Drive salad after all. Then, with a small lump in her throat, she explained what it meant to be a White House secretary.
"Let me put it this way," said the 29-year-old blond. "If this were England, we'd be working for the queen. I guess you could say we're ladies in waiting."
But after seven years of lady-in-waiting-hood, she was beheaded.
"It was so shocking ," she cried, her blue eyes misting. "We got The Ax."
Noonan and at least 70 other White House secretaries were terminated last week by the Reagan administration, toppled from the ultimate typing pool. l
The massive dismissal of personnel by the Reagan team was so swift, one stunned staffer said, that her parking space in the White House lot was revoked withing hours of her firing. ("I suppose I was already on somebody's list," she snapped.)
Because of the recent hiring freeze, many of the women cannot return to their pre-White House jobs at various federal agencies. And they are bitter over the banishment.
"It was so unfair ," said one of the secretaries. "I worked here for four years. They told me on Monday. Tuesday I was out."
It was all a matter of confidence," a White House spokesman said.
"Their political orientation," said Ed Gray, director of the office of policy development, "was not in consistency with the new Republican president. pIt might be inappropriate for them to work [here]. . . A new administration comes in. There is no requirement, no reason why we should have to keep anyone. This was an election. The White House is now under the control of Ronald Reagan -- not Jimmy Carter."
There were charges and counter-charges. The secretaries say they are Schedule A nonpolitical federal employes. They claim to be covered by the Hatch Act, which forbids any partisan political activity.
For Noonan and several others from the Domestic Policy Staff, the sacking was anything but smooth.
"They called us all in at 8:30 Wednesday morning," said Noonan, "made us wait until 1:30 to be interviewed. They spaced them out 10 minutes apart, asked about our party affiliation, our loyalty to the past administration and what we thought of Ronald Reagan. They even asked one girl who her husband voted for. We've known for some time that our jobs were in jeopardy, but we didn't expect it to be so rude or so crude."
At 5:20 p.m. the firing squad appeared. Twenty-three employes stood at attention.
"They said four girls could stay temporarily. Nineteen were fired," Noonan said. "They told us to clean out our desks by the next day. Everyone was hysterical."
Did Gray ask the secretaries who they voted for?
"I asked what their impression of Ronald Reagan was," he said.
Did he ask the women whether they had read Reagan's inaugural speech and what they had thought of it?
"Yes, I may have asked them that. We were trying to determine just how olitical their orientation was," Gray said. "But I was mostly interested in their skills."
"We were so humiliated," said Carolyne Keene, 32-year-old former appointments secretary to Stuart Eizenstat. "They didn't give anybody a chance. It was like a slap in the face."
"I wasn't even interviewed," said the former secretary to one of Carter's top advisers. "The irony of the whole damn thing is that I voted for Reagan."
For a professional secretary, the White House is the top, the Xanadu of the Xerox set.
"You don't understand," said one woman. "It's the pinnacle ."
Michelle Mullen understands. "I'll miss it," said the 27-year-old former secretary who worked at the White House for the last six years, most recently in the speechwriter's office. "If you're looking for a prestige job, there's no better place than the White House."
The transatlantic flights on Air Force One, the chauffered cars to Camp David, midnight suppers in exotic places, VIPs to greet, phone calls returned tout de suite . . .
"It's very hard to leave. You're used to the prestige."
Mullen was a newlywed when she came to the White House six years ago from her job at the Treasury Department. Like the other secretaries, she had heard of an opening there. The White House does not advertise its vacancies. You either hear of an opening through a friend, or are detailed there from another agency.
At first, it was hard on her marriage. Her husband, she said, didn't understand the long and sometimes erratic hours. "I was on call 24 hours a day," she said. "I remember going on many times at 2 a.m."
(Working at the White House "breaks up a lot of marriages," Kathy Noonan said. "Quite a few of the secretaries have gotten divorces.")
But for Mullen, the money ($20,000 to $25,000) was better than what she could earn in the private sector. So was the office equipment: word processors instead of Selectric IIs. There were other advantages: working with the cream of your profession, parking right near your office, no check-cashing hassles once you pulled out your White House ID.
There were other perks afforded the elite tribe of typists: Christmas cards from the president, office parties with Broadway stars, watching the Fourth of July fireworks from the South Lawn, the fanfare of state visits and maybe, just maybe, a seat in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center.
And when the tom-toms beat out the news that an unscheduled visitor like Burt Reynolds or George Peppard, Willie Nelson or Barbra Streisand just happened to be in the West Wing, the tribal ritual of roaming the corridors -- hot on the celebrity trail -- began.
Location is status for the secretaries: the West Wing is definitely the preferred spot, although one must dress a bit better and keep the language clean. Next comes the Old Executive Office, and bringing up the rear, the new Executive Office Building.
But there is grit with the glamor: Lunches usually consist of cold sandwiches consumed al desko . Most of them work every other Saturday, some on bona fide projects, others on the whims of their bosses.
Case in point. One secretary was called in on a Saturday to type an urgent paper. The memo, it turned out, was directed to the cafeteria. Her boss wanted the menu changed.
Last year, when Mullen was seven months pregnant, her boss was at Camp David working on Carter's acceptance speech for the Democratic Convention. One day the phone rang. They wanted Mullen at Camp David. She packed her bag, ran out the door and got in her car. Then the phone rang again. "Not yet, not yet," her boss said. Mullen unpacked. The following day, the phone rang again. Same request. She grabbed her bag, got into the car and got halfway down the driveway before her husband flagged her down. It was another "not yet" call from Camp David.
Finally, on the third day of playing professional yo-yo, Mullen went to Camp David. "It ruined the whole weekend," she said. But then again, she said, "typing a president's speech is a lot more interesting than typing somebody's will."
Mullen traveled to Europe with the president, took windblown jaunts on Marine One and rode to Camp David in chauffeured cars. She was on maternity leave when the ax fell.
So how will it feel to be back on the subway after she's seen Air Force One?
"It might be nice not to have the pressure," Mullen said. "Then again, it might be really boring."
While the White House may offer prestige, it certainly doesn't offer security. In fact, several secretaries said they kidded their Carter administration bosses about losing their jobs -- thinking all the while that their own were safe.
As nonpolitical employes, they say they are loyal to whomever they work for, which means -- in the end -- they are loyal only to power.
Case in point. Several days before Reagan's inauguration, Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat met with several visitors in his West Wing office. Halfway through the meeting, he popped his head out and said the group could use some coffee. One of his secretaries looked up. "The machine's downstairs," she said dryly. "So are the cups."
But if loose lips sink ships, the White House will be kept afloat. Few of the fired secretaries were willing to talk on the record. For those who did, discretion was their first, middle and last name. Ask them what the worst thing that ever happened to them at the White House was and their minds immediately go blank. How about the funniest? They can't remember. The most bizarre? Sorry.
Maybe that's why they worked at the White House and others didn't. There were some secrets they were willing to share, little things like turning on the boss' office lights so it looks like he's working when he's out; taking shirts to the laundry and checks to the bank.
"Some of the guys get real gaga over how important they are," one secretary explained.
But were previous transitions handled differently?
"They [Carter] did it in a much nicer way," said Kathy Noonan, who came to the White House in 1974. "They kept the secretaries who wanted to stay, and dispersed them to other offices."
But this time, she said, there were no attempts to sabotage their successors, not like the Republicans who plastered "President Ford" bumper stickers on the top of every desk.
"There's always some bitterness when you leave a place and someone else is coming in," she said guardedly.
Of the four Domestic Policy Staff secretaries asked to stay temporarily, three were Ford administration hires. Noonan was one of them. She resigned anyway. A snafu arose last Thursday when the fired secretaries were called in and asked to resign in order to qualify for two weeks' pay more. w
Gray explained that he was unaware on Wednesday of the Reagan White House policy guaranteeing two weeks' salary in exchange for the employes' resignation.
"First they fired me, then they asked me to resign," groused one secretary.
And will they suffer White House withdrawal?
"It's going to be a comedown, believe me," said Carolyne Keene, who found a spot with Eizenstat in his Washington law office. "It's almost like it was a dream world. It's a very elite corps of professionals. It's status. You're dealing with the cream of the crop. I may never find that again."
Yes, she said, working at the White House spoils you.
If anyone should be spoiled, it's Eliska Coolidge, 40-year-old diminutive director of the office of presidential messages. Last week, Coolidge got word: After 18 years and five presidents, somebody in the Reagan camp wanted her job.
"Up to now, nobody's wanted it, I guess," said Coolidge.
Is she bitter? "No." Is she angry? "No." Is she for real?
"Will, it was a little bit sudden," the tight-lipped Coolidge said, smoothing her Oscar de la Renta skirt.
"But I felt it was inevitable. I did my job as well as I could. Naturally, you have feelings," she said cooly. "I think my family is more upset about it than I am. I look at it philosophically: It was time to go."
Coolidge said she will not write her memoirs ("a cheap shot") nor will she particularly miss the White House. "I don't think working there was glamorous. It was just sheer hard work."
Unlike the secretaries, Coolidge feels no animosity. "I know that sounds weird. I think it's very natural that a president should have who he wants to around him."
Besides, she said. "I don't think the Reagans owed me anything."