At 10 last night, some of the most powerful men in the United States stood in the Great Hall of Folger Shakespeare Library, greedily inhaling tobacco fumes between the entree and dessert of a dinner in the Reading Room, where cigarettes and cigars have never (well, hardly ever) been ignited before.
"The waiter took away my ashtray," said OMB Director David Stockman (whose ashtray must have been stolen from the Great Hall to reappear on his dinner table). "What else could I do?"
Inside, offering a token resistance to social pressure, presidential assistanat Lyn Nofziger puffed on one of the cigars without which he would be unrecognizable. It was unlighted (the waiters at the dinner-dance were truly formidable), but one end of it showed signs of intensive chewing. "Is that Mickey Mouse on your necktie?" asked an admirer, squinting at the small figures painted on his black tie. "Certainly," said Nofziger, and indeed it was the Walt Disney hero, mitigating the severity of a black-tie affair in the depths of Washington's dog days.
Stockman, Nofziger and a whole battalion of Reagan administration heavies gathered last night in the Folger Reading Room (a sanctuary usually reserved for literary scholars at or near the PhD level) to pay tribute to one of the most formidable figures in the current power structure: Helene von Damm, special assistant to the president, whose desk is just outside the Oval office and whose scrutiny is imposed on all who pass into the inner sanctum. The party was sponsored by two old friends -- Joe D. Miller, deputy executive vice president of the American Medical Association, which was von Damm's first employer, and Roy Pfautch, proprietor of an organization in St. Louis called Civic Service Inc. If anybody thinks von Damm is less than spectacularly wonderful, they were not in the Folger Library last night, or they were keeping their mouths prudently shut.
"Helene is one of the finest ladies I know," said White House counselor Ed Meese, "and has been a continual help to the president for 15 years. It's a great pleasure to join in honoring her tonight." Nobody registered a dissenting opinion, though a few were willing to talk about other subjects. Stockman, fresh from a series of stunning congressional victories, said he is "still working" on his next major proposal. Meanwhile, he said, "My next suggestion for the congressional agenda is for them to take a well-earned vacation."
Deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver said that von Damm is "one of the most sincere, nice people I know, and the only problem is that she is Ronald Reagan's secretary. He's too nice by himself, and he needs somebody tough. I used to date her before I met my wife. She has a heart as big as all outdoors."
The guest list of about 150 read like a Who's Who in the Reagan administration, including Attorney General William French Smith; Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis, who appeared briefly and left early to deal with the continuing crisis of the striking air traffic controllers; CIA Director William Casey, fresh from his battle with congressional investigators; Defense Secretary ycaspar Weinberger; White House chief of staff James Baker; FBI Director William ywebster; White House protocol chief Lee Annenberg and her husband, Walter.
The guest of honor, who came to the United States from Russian-occupied Austria after World War II and had her introduction to American politics working for the Political Action Committee of the American Medical yassociation, was happy but not overwhelmed (obviously, she does not overwhelm easily) at the turnout in her honor. Thinking back 35 years, to the time when she was a little girl in yaustria scared of the occupying Russian soldiers, she said, "What was going through my mind all night was a song, 'If they could see me now.'"
Bon Damm said that she now sees Reagan, on an average day, "sometimes an hour, sometimes half an hour, sometimes never. But we have known each other going back to 1968, and we can read each other; it is a very comfortable and very easy relationship." Her husband since May, Byron Leeds, "knows that Ronald Reagan was here before he was, and he is something different and special," she said.
By the time, the dinner had ended and everyone was out in the Great Hall, jitterbugging to hits of the recent and distant past, played by the Gene Donati Bank in a room that usually hears no music composed much after 1960. Instead of Elizabethan madrigals, pavans and galliards, the room vibrated to tunes ranging from "Tennessee Waltz" and "Sentimental Journey" to the daringly modern "Leroy Brown."
"Look," said von Damm, pointing to the piano where two nonmembers of the Musicians' Union were tickling the ivories in tandem, "[ICA Director] Charlie Wick and Mike Deaver are playing together for the dance and sing-along."
Earlier, among those driven out of the Reading Room for a smoke during the meal, Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige was busy defending his efforts to get people in his department to write clearly. "All I'm trying to do," he said, "is get them to say what they mean on one page. Then maybe we can get something done." Stockman listened sympathetically, then moved off to a quiet corner for a private conversation with an aide.
Being held at the Folger, in a room that has seen few dinner parties in the past, this party had some special features besides the no-smoking rule. Instead of the customary table numbers, which inevitably raise prickly questions of rank, each table was designated by a quote from Shakespeare. Each quote had an overtly political overtone, ranging from "Greatness knows itself" (Henry IV) to "Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge" (Titus Andronicus). Guests' place cards, given to them at the entrance to the dining room, had all or part of a quotation, and with that clue each guest had to find the right table. There was some grumbling. Novelist Warren Adler was unhappy, placed at a table labeled "Unthread the rude eyes of rebellion,/ And Welcome home again discarded truth" (King John).
"It's the most complicated seating arrangement in the history of Washington," he said. "And why were we given Shakespeare's worst play?" Others seemed less disgruntled -- for example, those at a table placarded with a quote from "Twelfth Night": "Be not afraid of greatness:/ some are born great,/ some achieve greatness,/ and some have greatness thrust upon them."