In this cost-conscious Reagan administration, a planeload of VIPs was flown up to Anchorage, Alaska, last week to greet Pope John Paul II on his three-hour stopover there on his return home from his Far Eastern tour. Shunted off to an out-of-the-way patch of ice, the VIPs thought for a while they had made the costly trip in vain.
At a time when government travel has been cut back at least 15 percent, the White House sent 48 persons, including officials and some private citizens who were friends or relatives of someone in Washington, on the three-day trip.
"That's more than twice as many as we sent to Rome when the pope was; installed," grumbled one former White House aide who was involved in similar logistics for President Carter. "We only sent 20 that time."
The trip, headed by Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan as President Reagan's representative, cost a minimum of $78,000, just counting the cost of jet fuel for the Air Force C-137 (comparable to a Boeing 707) and 35 hotel rooms at the Anchorage Westward Hilton for two nights.
There seems to be a discrepancy among State Department and White House officials as to what budget is being used to fund the trip. One State Department official who administers such funds in that agency said this week that the White House will pick up the tab. But a Military Affairs source familiar with such flights said, "State is doing it all."
The group included Secretary of State Al Haig's brother, the Rev. Frank R. Haig, a Jesuit astronomer, and Thomas Reckling III, a Coors beer distributor from Houston, Tex., who said yesterday that he doesn't know why he was invited. He said he is Catholic and a boyhood friend of White House chief of staff James Baker.
Also along was Marcia Hobbs, identified on the flight manifest as "president of the Los Angeles Zoo." She is also the daughter of William A. Wilson, the longtime "kitchen cabinet" friend of President Reagan who was recently named U.S. envoy to the Vatican.
Both Wilson and his wife also made the trip.
According to a member of Congress who was part of the delegation but does not want to be identifed, planning for the trip was so hurried that the Reagan representatives were "almost left out in the cold."
"We felt like spear-carriers in the opera," he said. "The archbishop of Alaska decided that the welcoming committee should be all from Alaska and we were put back behind a velvet rope 15 feet from the path the pope was taking when he left the plane."
Apparently as an economy measure, a decision was made not to build a wooden platform, one source said, forcing the delegation to stand on solid ice for the three-hour ceremony.
"We were simmering, despite the cold. We'd flown 3,500 miles for this?Then someone made arrangements for the pope to pass by us on his way out. We were then nothing but a 'Presidental Departure Committee,'" the congressman said.
"God bless Cardinal [John] Krol. He took it on himself to suddenly reach over and let down the rope before anyone could stop him. We all surged forward en masse like the bargain-basement sale at Macy's. It wasn't very dignified, but it sure was fun."
The delegation was also reportedly unhappy at other arrangements made by the State Department's protocol office for the itinerary.
According to the same congressman, the group arrived in Alaska at midnight Washington time "and was put aboard two buses that went careening madly over the hillside outside Anchorage" to a party at the home of former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel.
"We were stuffed with king crab and salmon," the congressman reported. "But they could have fed us that at any hotel downtown. As nearby as I could see, we were a captive audience at a 1 a.m. party just so we could see and could ooh and ah over Wally's sumptuous home. I looked around for an ashtray to steal to get even."
Another source said that the State Department was under strict orders to cut costs on the trip, despite the money spent on the number of actual delegates
A photographer who normally makes such trips to record the event for participants was left behind.
New York attorney Thomas Bolan, high-priced law partner of Roy Cohn, was the only person with a camera and ended up spending most of his time making photographs for everyone's scrapbooks and office walls.