"If I were a television show," Secretary of State Alexander Haig said pleasantly at a dinner last night, "I'd be scrubbed."
"He said that?" said presidential counselor Edwin Meese, who was dining at a nearby table. "I think he's being very entertaining. Heh, heh, heh."
It was just more of the stuff produced by official Washington nightlife: political one-liners, culled from the daytime carnival of White House turf wars. Haig was answering a question about his recent bad press, which reported that his aides criticized U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and national security adviser Richard V. Allen -- and Meese, too, whom he reportedly called disorganized.
Last night's occasion at the International Club was actually in honor of a Republican who left the carnival a few administrations ago: William E. Simon, the former secretary of the Treasury under Gerald Ford. After an accolade by Ronald Reagan, the William E. Simon chair of the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies was announced to a crowd of 300.
"He has rightfully earned his reputation as one of the most skilled politicians ever to serve the people of the United States," the president said of Simon.
"I remember being frequently assured, during my days in the Treasury, that there would be a large and enthusiastic turnout if the time and place were set for my hanging," Simon said of himself.
Reagan played up his domestic policy in his own remarks, particularly his recent budget-cutting victory on Capitol Hill. "I have not spent the last several weeks pushing pins into a [House Speaker] Tip O'Neill doll," he joked.
Last night, Reagan also announced that William Simon will head a new "Productivity Commission," a group of business, industry, labor and government leaders whose task is to improve the U.S. competitive position in the world market.
A big chunk of the current White House was at the black-tie dinner. That's because the Georgetown Center, a leading conservative think tank, provided some of the top personnel for the Reagan administration. "An incubator," is how columnist George Will put it over cocktails last night.
The $2 million chair is endowed by major corporations like Citicorp, IBM, PepsiCo, Xerox, Dow Chemical and others. It is the center's first, established to allow a scholar the opportunity for research in political economics. So far, no one has been announced.
Presiding over the speeches and dinner was Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state who pulled off jokes in the manner of West Coast late-night talk show host. A sampling:
1. "I heard Ed Meese say to the secretary of state, 'Say, why don't we meet at the White House mess tomorrow?' The secretary of state said, 'Why do we always have to meet at your office?'"
(Very loud laughter here. Both Meese and Haig got red in their faces.)
2. "I heard Richard Allen giving some reassurance to the secretary of state. He said, 'I'm always right behind you.' (Premature laughter.) And I heard Al mumble, "That's the most frightening thing I've heard all evening.'"
(Very loud laughter again.)
The remainder of the evening was left for crowing, Republicans being something of an I-told-you-so group these days.
"You are men and women who have braved the tyranny of fashionable opinion and have known the loneliness of a stand against the prevailing winds!" Simon said in his remarks from the podium. "Yes, this is far from an assembly of the trendies!"
(Nobody laughed. This was serious.)
"Tonight our spirits are livelier because there is a new breeze blowing across this land, and fresh air to be inhaled by a country choking on bureaucratic exhaust fumes for the last 50 years!" Simon continued.
He got a standing ovation.
Applauding him were people like CIA Director William Casey, Undersecretary of State Myer Rashish, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, Attorney General William French Smith, Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) and Georgetown Center scholar James Schlesinger, who was energy secretary under Jimmy Carter and defense secretary under Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
Schlesinger, when slightly prodded, held forth with some remarks on the Reagan presidency. The question posed was "How is he doing?"
"Well on some things," Schlesinger responded. "Not so well on others. He's concentrated on domestic policy. He's got the necessity of focusing on foreign policy. The situation in Europe continues to deteriorate. He's got major problems in the Middle East. The power position of the United States has declined sufficiently so that the rest of the world cannot be expected to wait as it does things in its own good time."
Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. International Communications Agency, was also there. "I'm a friend of Bill Simon," he said. "That's where we are, aren't we? The Bill Simon dinner?"