"Jim, we've been looking all over for you," said the president of the United States to his press secretary, James S. Brady. "I've declared martial law, dismissed the Congress . . . and here I find you fraternizing."
Indeed he was. So was a lot of political and journalistic Washington at the George Town Club on Saturday night -- a crowd so stuffed with Reagan administration glitterati that the president himself, surveying the small sea of tuxedos, remarked: "I see all of our Cabinet and everyone else around. No one's tending store."
But apparently, this was not a matter for concern. The president shrugged and laughed. "It's Saturday night," he said.
The occasion was a roast for Brady, thrown by a bunch of his old friends from previous administrations. ("A babble of Brady buddies," the invitation read.) The president dropped by on his way to the Ford's Theatre gala to take a few swipes, and after that, most everybody else got a turn.
It was the end of a rough week for the press secretary who on Wednesday had to explain the president's low approval rating in a new Gallup poll and on Monday disavowed a statement on El Salvador made by a State Department official. He drew criticism for that, reportedly from inside the administration as well as out.
"You know, roasts are supposed to be events where you say things about people you wouldn't normally say," said White House chief of staff James Baker during his remarks, "but in Brady's case, I suppose this could be just another day at the office."
Administration members threw back their heads and laughed. Reporters guffawed. Drinks disappeared. And Baker, reading from some chicken scratches on a piece of yellow legal paper, began to warm up. Soon he was into a story about Edwin Meese, the presidential counselor, and John Connaly, the former presidential candidate whom Brady worked for until Connally lost the South Carolina primary and thus any chance of the Republican nomination.
"Ed Meese was talking to the president," Baker began, "and he said, 'You know, Mr. President, if it weren't for Jim Brady, John Connally wouldn't be where he is today.'" The crowd, which had become highly receptive to this sort of taunt, cackled.
"Who wrote that?" somebody yelled. "Who wrote that?"
"Me!" Baker yelled back, pleased as Johnny Carson after a good monologue.
Eventually, Baker got serious about Brady. Well, sort of.
"As somebody used to say about something else," he said. "He's ours. We bought him, we paid for him -- and we're going to keep him."
About 60 people stood in front of Baker in the dark-paneled room, a place that has the intimate feel of a men's club. Reporters schmoozed undisturbed with the administration members they can rarely get a hold of during the working day. As for the administration members, they got a chance to put out their official line through casual, unofficial conversation.
It was the kind of clubby give-and-take the Carter administration shied away from, particularly at a place as old-line and established as the George Town Club. But the Reagan administration has decided there are plenty of advantage to this Washington tradition.
"This has been a great party," producer Peggy Whedon of ABC's "Issues and Answers" said at one point to Brady. "I've booked more people for the show than I'll ever be able to use."
Among her selection: Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Domestic Policy Adviser Martin Anderson, CIA Director William Casey, top aides Meese and Michael Deaver, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen.
Allen was a popular roaster, particularly when he got up to the microphone and began an imitation of his old nemesis, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. "I should like to take this opportunity . . ." he began in vintage Kissingerian baritone. But he was drowned out by laughter.
Meese, in his turn at the microphone, addressed the question of Brady's access to the president -- the question that worried reporters when this man who had worked for Ronald Reagan for less than a year was made press secretary. "Just the other morning," said Meese, "Brady solved the question of access for all time. Because while the president was taking a shower, Jim Brady showed up in a wet suit."
Brady is a large man with an impressive belly, and the thought of him in a wet suit caused another round of laughter. Brady's physique, which has earned him the nickname "Bear," turned out to be a favorite topic for the roasters.
From Baker again: "They say that Jim Brady is a tough guy to get in front of. But let me tell you, he's a hard guy to get around in a normalized hallway."
Another highlight of the evening came during Reagan's departure.
ABC's Sam Donaldson, not content to let the president rush in and out so easily, loudly began to tell Reagan a story about a White House guard who was standing sentinel at a closed door to the Cabinet room.
"Who's in there?" Donaldson said he asked the guard.
"We've got the president of the United States in there," replied the guard.
"Well, for God's sake," responded Donaldson, "let him out."
Reagan, who has complained of feeling cooped up at the White House these past months, loved this. "I'm with you," he said.
On his way out of the club, Nancy Reagan was stopped by several reporters who asked what it felt like to be pushed over by a 5-year-old child, as she was last week, and then have her legs prominently displayed in the nation's newspapers.
"We were all talking about them at the office," said one reporter.
"Really nice legs," came a second comment to fill the quiet that followed the first.
"Yes," said another, "those legs have been the subject of much discussion."
Nancy Reagan looked at the small group around her in wide-eyed disbelief. "Well . . ." she began. Then she threw back her head and for a good 15 seconds, giggled without stop.
By the time the party was winding down, so was Brady. "The honeymoon for the president will be a lot longer than the one for me," he said, referring to the evening's roasts as well as the past week. "My honeymoon ended about a week after I got there."
But then he mentioned that he'd had four beers the night before with Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's press secretary. "It would have been a good fly-on-the-wall conversation," he said.
So what was the nature of it?
"Simpatico," he sighed.