When the White House Press Corps checked in here, among the perks they found in canvas bags printed with "1983 Summit of Industrialized Nations" were free tickets to nearby Busch Gardens. Friday night three reporters went out for a look. Gary Schuster and Steve Duthie of the Detroit News with Steve Neal of the Chicago Tribune climbed on board the Loch Ness Monster for the 70 mph ride that took 50 seconds. The idea was to "get in condition" for covering the conference. As Schuster put it later: "Everybody could tell we had a good time--we all had bugs on our teeth."
You could call it the powder blue summit, thanks to phones and just about everything else at the International Press Center, or you could call it the chocolate chip cookie conference, accounting for what all the reporters had in their mouths other than hot scoops. Despite all dire predictions, there was one thing you couldn't call the 1983 Summit of Industrialized Nations--you couldn't call it crowded.
The big question among townspeople, shopkeepers, restaurant owners and even the press was: Where is everybody?
"Everybody" meant everybody connected with President Reagan's three-day get-together, and most of everybody was the press. Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting outfits--they all contributed to a small army of reporters, photographers and the news biz camp followers making today's classic media assault and siege.
Summit officials said media credentials were issued to 3,000 people, and nobody disputes that. But the spacious, well-equipped press headquarters hardly looked like an election night city room, let alone the media mob scene remembered by the veterans of last year's Versailles summit.
Many of them may not have appreciated what summit planners and American taxpayers had done for them. There, on the playing fields of the College of William and Mary and in the huge glass-and-concrete field house, reporters found a place they could call home.
At the eight tennis courts, tented over in powder blue-and-white stripes, fast food was available most of the day and into the night. And nothing at the conference was yummier (tasty tidbits of inside knowledge notwithstanding) than Tom's Mom's Chocolate Chip Cookies.
The field house was equally done up in powder blue bunting with matching telephones, making it some sort of a new standard among history's colorful conferences. Reporters got the word from their governments' spokesmen in separate briefing rooms, and there were all those extras beloved by the press: a post office, a message center, a currency exchange, a first aid station equipped with multilingual doctors and more.
Even before serious skull sessions got under way, President Reagan sauntered into the media's food tent with a big hello for one and all--even the television technician who dumped soup on himself in living-color astonishment.
At William and Mary, a winning basketball team can draw bigger crowds than a summit conference. The gym had plenty of room for reporters, TV crews and VIP delegations when the joint statement was issued there today.
There were security types of one kind or another everywhere, however, and memories of the presidential assassination attempt flashed alive when Reagan was saying his piece. Right in the middle of his remarks, something--a falling chair, whatever--went "bang."
"Missed me," quipped Reagan, and he read on.
The description of French President Franc,ois Mitterrand's suit baffled all the reporters who read the pool report of his arrival Saturday. Upon checking, it turned out that there was a typographical error. Knight-Ridder's Owen Ullman had intended to describe it as "Gallic gray." Instead, it came out "garlic gray."
Reporters coming here from around the world were betting on what the big story would be, taking either the Middle East or Central America--but definitely not the summit they had been dispatched to cover. The Middle East was the odds-on favorite because during two previous economic summits, the Israelis captured the headlines. In 1981, during the Ottawa summit, the Israelis bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq. Last year, during the Versailles summit, the Israelis invaded Lebanon.
But by today, reporters with money on either the Middle East or Central America were paying off their bets. While the story still wasn't the summit, it had turned out to be arms control. Said Sarah Fritz of U.S. News and World Report, who put her money on the Middle East: "I owe my editor five bucks."
Overheard in the Press Center: "We brought five people down here and the last thing the desk said was, 'Please don't overfile.' "
For Britain's Margaret Thatcher, the Americans obligingly bent their much-ballyhooed edict that there would be no press conferences by any of the leaders before Reagan issued the joint statement today.
The White House downplayed this change in the rules, saying it was "generally accepted" that if any leader had to leave early, an adjustment could be made.
So even if Thatcher didn't make the late news back home Sunday night, she all but locked up Monday morning headlines there, which probably didn't hurt her reelection campaign.
"They're all politicians," observed one British correspondent. "Next year the Americans may find themselves in the same position."
Or at least Ronald Reagan may. Next year will be the Americans' turn at the polls, and the summit is scheduled for Britain. If Thatcher is still around she may have a chance to return the favor.
Security at the Press Center was so tight that when a very high-level German official arrived for an interview appointment with an American correspondent, the guards wouldn't let him in without proper pre-clearance formalities.
And White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes showed up at today's morning briefing with a security guard. "I have been threatened by the press corps," he quipped. "Threats on my life by an irate reporter."
"Why can't we get a straight answer?" demanded CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.
"We never discuss security," replied Speakes.
Canada's Pierre Elliott Trudeau drew cheers from the Canadian press corps when he stepped off the helicopter in Market Square Saturday for the carriage ride to the Governor's Palace, where Reagan waited to welcome him. True to his image of sartorial surprises, Trudeau sported a wide-brimmed white panama hat. Not without a sense of theater, Trudeau got off the plane during a recent visit to Brazil wearing a natty three-piece suit--and running shoes. He also likes to canoe wearing a beret.
His Williamsburg panama may have protected him from the sun, but it also guaranteed him instant recognition in the thousands of pictures coming out of Saturday's arrival ceremonies.
"In some ways," said a Canadian correspondent, "he was saying, 'This is a lavishly staged event you've got here, and I might as well play the role, too.' "
When one American reporter suggested to an American official that Trudeau might have been reminding everybody "a white hat is a good guy," the official smiled--thinly. "Everybody's a good guy here," came the somewhat curt reply.
Trudeau's press secretary, Nicole Senecal, dropped by to see Larry Speakes and brought along two baseball caps for his hat collection. "I don't know anything about baseball," said Senecal. But she invited Speakes to Canada for the World Series, which the Canadians predict will take place between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos. As a reciprocal gift, Speakes gave Senecal a gray felt tricornered hat of the type American colonists wore.
They were similiar to the tricornered hats Italian reporters received when they checked in Friday. A little later, American reporters looking in at Italy's briefing room at the Press Center were startled to see the Italians typing away while sporting those hats.
The Canadians had their own view of the summit's host country. Taped to the wall outside their official briefing room was a poster showing a grand mountain scene with the caption: "American Borders on the Magnificent." And for reporters who might have forgotten where they were, a wall map had Williamsburg renamed "Reagansburg."
The French did not miss a chance to add a touch of intrigue and mischief. When numbered credentials for officials were being assigned, they saw to it that Henri Vidal got one suitable for the spokesman of French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, a number used by super-secret agent James Bond. The French added an extra zero, making it 0007, possibly for valor. At one point, Vidal was seen carrying a mysterious wicker trunk into the French briefing room at the Press Center. "Snakes," whispered one French correspondent.
But the French had taken their lumps at Versailles, where temperatures--official and otherwise--soared at last year's summit. Reporters sweltered inside the chateau's unventilated Orangerie, which had been set aside as the press headquarters. So temperature-control was high on the Americans' list as they spent more than $1 million remodeling the field house--used as the Press Center--at the College of William and Mary.
The French press got a taste of just how accomplished their hosts were at climate control after their 18-hour trip from Paris, which had been delayed in New York by storms and backed-up air traffic. Inside their briefing room, the temperature was in the low 60s. While American technicians worked to save what was left of Franco-American relations, the French shivered.
"Revenge," theorized one French government official.
The Japanese reporters stayed at the Williamsburg Hilton, which apparently has no Japanese chef on its staff. To make up for that omission, the Japanese brought in food from Richmond, including onigiri (rice balls covered with seaweed) and tonkatsu (fried pork). Those who covered the Carter's Grove dinner given by President Reagan Saturday night politely declined the American-style North Carolina barbecue and chili corn bread provided for reporters covering the event. Said one: "I'm not hungry."
The Japanese were up to their old spending tricks. At one Colonial Williamsburg shop, blue-suited officials cleaned out the handbag and tote bag stock right out from under a prospective shopper's wallet. An observer counted at least 50 bags and was told that more had been packaged and were in the car. The Japanese officials said they were taking them back to their secretaries.
The French were the most quotable, the British the most thorough.
Those were the assessments some American and British reporters made of the weekend's background briefings at the Press Center. But emerging as hands-down star briefer was 38-year-old Martin Hall, press secretary to Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe. The Oxford-educated former foreign ministry official packed them in at the British background briefings. Nobody seemed able to beat him when it came to the sheer nitty-gritty of economic substance. His name, however, never surfaced since all his words were on background. Instead, he was identified as "British sources."
Laughed Hall of his newfound press corps celebrity: "I'm not sure Deep Throat is the image I want."
Reporters, of course, are supposed to remain objective. But the Americans covering one background briefing by a senior administration official called this response to an arms questions the most offensive: Said the official, "I should have expected that the most intelligent question would come from a European correspondent."
The official was a former reporter himself.
The Americans lost the briefing war on Sunday, some say, because U.S. officials presiding seemed a little short on substance and sophistication. But there was no shortage of competition. The French hurdled the language barrier with a simple gimmick--the tape recorder. They taped briefings their officials gave to the French press, simultaneously translating them into English. Any English speakers could simply plug in earphones and turn on the tape. Outside the U.S. briefing room, the French held up signs that said, in effect: "French briefing, English translation, down the hall."
One luncheon the media mob didn't cover was a California-style barbeque that White House senior aides gave Sunday at Providence Hall for German and Japanese officials while the president was dining with leaders at Raleigh Tavern. National security adviser William Clark tended the grill, appropriately decked out in a white chef's apron and hiding under an umbrella much of the time. The only problem seemed to be that the steaks were so tough they weren't edible. The president's own steward rushed off to nearby Williamsburg Inn to commandeer some better quality meat for Clark's coals. But in the spirit of economic hard times, that wasn't the last that was seen of the tough meat. Clark, presidential counselor Edwin Meese, their wives and a few others in the president's party ate it that night for dinner--after it was cooked another couple of hours.
President Reagan and the other "heads" (as they are called by summit staffers) ate deep-fried catfish, North Carolina-style barbecue and hush puppies Saturday at Carter's Grove. But back in Williamsburg, Larry Speakes and seven other press secretaries were dining on an elegant repast of stuffed veal, chilled apple curry soup and Sally Lunn bread.
The administration's latest host-with-the-most presided in the dining room of the 250-year-old residence of the president of the College of William and Mary. To make sure they could make it, Speakes cabled all his guests twice, then followed up with hand-delivered formal invitations after they arrived in town. He had good reason. At the Puerto Rico summit, Gerald Ford's press secretary Ron Nessen invited his peer group to dinner the last night and nobody showed.
The Mississippi-born Speakes admitted he would have preferred catfish to veal, but he and his guests, Canada's Nicole Senecal, European Community's Nicholas van der Pas, France's Michel Vauzelle, Germany's Peter Boenisch, Britain's Vernard Ingham, Italy's Ignazio Contu and Japan's Yoshio Karita, managed to choke it all down.
Unlike some of their bosses, who needed interpreters around their dinner table, everybody spoke English. Quite loquaciously, in fact, on one particular subject.
Said Speakes: "We offered to trade press corps."