It may sound like a tempest in a silver teapot to some people, but the attitude of a few foreign embassies in Washington is striking cold chills down the elegant backs of present and future benefit chairmen. The embassies, which for years have generously supported Washington charities by opening their doors to various benefits, seem to be more concern this year about security and less about goodwill.
Marcella Cahill, chairman of the Goodwill Industries Guild tour set for Saturday, said, "We've had a terrible time getting embassies to be on out tour this year. And I'm afraid next year's chairman will have a worse time. We were turned down by 13 embassies. One of the biggest embassy events of the year open to the public has been the Goodwill tour which is in its 34th year. Last year it attracted 4,000 visitors.
"We were particularly concerned because the British and French, our two most prominent embassies, wouldn't participate this year." In times past, one or the other of the two embassies have alternated on most years' tours.
A letter from Lady Mary Henderson, the wife of the British ambassador, to Mrs. Robert Beaver, president of the guild, said in part, "Although I am very conscious of the importance of Handicapped Year, and the excellent work which you do, it is impossible for us to consider the matter. We cannot have a large number of guests touring the house -- I think you will find that not one of your embassies abroad do this. There is, today, unfortunately, a major security problem, which I am sure you will understand. We are also expecting a number of VIP visitors and, therefore, setting a date is quite impossible . . . Unfortunately, the British Embassy cannot accept a tour of this kind in the present circumstances."
Lady Henderson, through a spokeswoman, added yesterday that she was "very sorry, but it is not the function of a residence where you are having ministers and, in our case, royalty, to allow several hundred people to tour. No similar scheme is in effect in the American Embassy in London, or I believe anywhere else." She added that their security office was imposing much stricter security on embassy events. "And I'm sure lots of other embassies are having the same problem."
The British Embassy was host last weekend to Prince Charles. The Japanese Embassy, according to Cahill, refused because "they said it would be impossible to have so many people go through." The Japanese Embassy yesterday was preoccupied with the visit from its prime minister and no one was available to comment.
The hostages held by the Iranians at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran may have helped trigger some refusals. And one embassy spokesman told Cahill, "You can't even protect your president, why should we risk our embassy?"
The French Embassy's public relations officer, Elaine Gautrat (no longer with the embassy), wrote to Cahill in refusal, "Regrettably, security reasons have necessitated a severe curtailment of access to the residence by large groups and we are only too sorry that this applies to your tour."
Cahill said that according to Goodwill's records, there has never been an unpleasant incident on the tour. "Nothing has ever been stolen, that we've heard," she said.
As if organizers didn't have enough trouble getting embassies to be on the tour, some questions have been raised about one that is on the tour. David Becker, president of Goodwill Industries, and a handful of people had telephoned to protest South Africa being on the tour and one letter had expressed concern about South Africa's internal policies. "Goodwill takes the position," he said, "that we are not endorsing the politics of any country."
Becker said he also felt that Cahill was unnecessarily concerned about the difficulties. "It seems to me we were right on schedule this year," he said.
Not all embassies share the views of those which turned the tour down.
The New Zealand Embassy, which recently built a spectacular new chancery where it entertains, was on the tour last year and volunteered to be on again this year to help out, Cahill said.
Lady Parkinson, the wife of the Australian ambassador, said, "We've never had a problem with the tour. We're interested where possible to help the handicapped -- I am an occupational therapist myself. We are glad to give people an opportunity to see our embassy and a bit of Australia."
Embassies on the tour this year are Australia, Chile, Guatemala, Panama and South Africa, with tea at the New Zealand Embassy and lunch at the National Presbyterian Church.