More than a dozen congressmen and 400 other well-wishers packed into the manila-colored banquet room of the Rayburn Office Building to plant kisses and lavish superlatives on Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), who is retiring after 14 years on the Hill.
But before the guest of honor could finish her farewell address, a voice in the back shouted, "Vote to override the president's veto! Emergency!"
So much for fond farewells when destiny beckons. The congressmen quickly scuttled out of their seats and Chisholm cut short her speech to answer the roll call, which practically cleared the head table and three center tables, leaving the luncheon on hold.
"She'll be right back if you can bear with us just a few more minutes," a hostess told the remaining guests, many of whom were local political VIPs who knew just what to do in the interim.
Mayoral candidate Patricia Roberts Harris breezed in from another luncheon, shaking hands, working the crowd of Chisholm supporters and drawing a few well-wishers of her own. Her campaign entourage had already staked out an entire table to which dozens of the luncheon guests flocked.
"We wanted Shirley Chisholm to know that this was something we cared about," said Harris of the table reservation. "There'll never be anyone else like her."
One of Harris' opponents, Mayor Marion Barry, didn't reserve a table. "I don't need all that," he said, pumping hands left and right. "I didn't come to campaign. I came to pay tribute to Shirley Chisholm."
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, mayoral candidates Charlene Drew Jarvis and John Ray all showed up to pay their regards to the first black congresswoman, and, before the luncheon was so abruptly suspended, a series of Chisholm's congressional colleagues sang her praise from the podium.
"I am a total and complete captive of Shirley Chisholm--toe to toe, hip to hip," began freshman legislator Rep. Harold Washington (D-Ill.). "She's a guided missile, a free spirit who hears her drum and moves. She inundates you, evaporates you, covers you up, but always leaves you a better person for it . . . Obviously and clearly, we are going to miss her."
Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.): "Inside Shirley Chisholm is an unquenchable fire that burned strongly against all evil . . . She saw wrong and tried to right it. She saw pain and tried to heal it. She saw war and tried to stop it. For all these things and 10,000 others, we thank you."
Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.): "Youth is not a time of life, it's a state of mind. And--write it down--Shirley Chisholm has only just begun."
Indeed. But Chisholm won't be pinned down about exactly where she plans to go from here after a quarter-century on the political stage.
"I'm just leaving for the moment," she said, hinting at her interest in journalistic and scholastic pursuits. "This is merely a transitory stage of my life. I don't intend to go home and knit afghans.
"Personally, I can't sit down and wait until the current presidential incumbent leaves office. I'll be preparing for 1984 when things have got to turn around."