It's a job, being president.
Some days are just, as the philosopher said, one damn thing after another. Some days, on the other hand, even in the midst of a hostage crisis, you get to meet nice people and give out medals.
10:56. In the White House press room the call for pre-positioning of video equipment comes over the intercom. Three dozen TV crews shamble out the door lugging tripods, cameras, battery belts. Cables stream across the lawn. The crews crowd onto their three-tier platform and spread out on both sides behind the roped-off area where some 700 seats are set up.
It looks like a heavy-duty wedding reception. Women in picture hats roam about with men in three-piece suits and some in shirtsleeves, for the heat is coming on rapidly. People are snapping pictures of each other with the White House as a backdrop. Guests (and the occasional reporter) strafe the white-skirted tables where petit-fours and elegant little macaroons are lined up alongside glasses of iced tea and lemonade.
Audience member to newsman: "Is that Sam Donaldson over there?"
Newsman, without turning to see: "Probably."
A British announcer is trying to do a newscast in the middle of it all. "But more seriously than that," he tells his camera, "an apparent major public breakdown between America and Israel . . . " He is cut off by the band launching into "Yankee Doodle." He tries again, fluffs it, tries again, fluffs it, tries again and the band launches into "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean." The minute that's over he tries again. The applause drowns him out.
At last the band quits, and the urgent, educated voice suddenly rings out. "BUT MORE SERIOUSLY THAN THAT . . . " Heads swivel.
11:30. The crowd abruptly goes silent. Donaldson calls, "No, Larry, we don't have to be quiet," rhetorically addressing the White House spokesman. Some press people laugh, and even a couple of the spiffily uniformed young White House social aides.
11:33. The band swings into "Hail to the Chief," the announcer announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States," and President Reagan walks smiling to the mike.
"Good afternoon," he says, "and welcome to the White House." He greets the 141 presidential scholars (actually, one had to leave for a ballet tryout in Holland and the Guam delegate didn't make it) and tells them that education calls for the three C's: content, character and choice, as well as honesty, kindness and loyalty.
He praises the parents -- "They're the ones with the ear-to-ear smiles . . . you just made their day" -- and the teachers. He wears a dark brown suit with red tie. At 11:41 he leaves, followed soon after by the press.
2 p.m.: It is Mrs. Reagan's turn. She is to present plaques to nine families, winners of the third annual Great American Family award. For this one the press is allowed through the White House front door into the East Room, where 50 friends already wait on gilded chairs. There are only two TV cameras here, a handful of reporters.
Gradually the families fill up the other seats, people from as near as Baltimore and as far as Seoul, and at 2:26 Mrs. Reagan and TV weatherman Willard Scott enter to applause. They need no introduction from chairman Austin Kiplinger.
"The White House bought me this suit three years ago," deadpans Scott. "They keep having me because I'm the only one who fits the suit."
Mrs. Reagan, wearing a cream-colored jacket and tan pleated skirt, makes a little speech and hands out the plaques, hugging each and every member of the nine families. It is quite a project. One family has 16 members. But by 2:53 she is done.
This is just as well, because she has to meet Mother Teresa at 3 in the Rose Garden.
3:02. Mrs. Reagan, not even breathing hard, serenely accompanies the president and the familiar tiny figure in the blue-and-white habit. The whole press corps is out here, surrounding a small audience of nuns, priests and lay people. Mother Teresa is to receive the Medal of Freedom. She was too busy saving the world, the president says, to receive it with the others earlier this year.
He calls her "the saint of the gutters" and "a heroine of our times" and adds that "this is the first time I've given the Medal of Freedom with the intuition that the recipient might take it home and melt it down to help the poor."
"I am most unworthy," says Mother Teresa, but she accepts the medal on behalf of the poor. "In giving it to me you are giving it to them."
Then she walks off between the First Couple, firmly clutching her rosary and the medal in its wooden box.
A few minutes later the press catches her on the driveway outside and envelopes her like an anemone. Unfrightened, she hands out religious pamphlets.
"Isn't she cute?" a woman mutters.
3:10. The press mills about in its room, strewn with easily three truckloads of camera bags, tripods, cable drums, stepladders, golf bags for long mikes, battery chargers, paperback thrillers and soft drink cans.
The president is back in the Oval Office. He still has to see expert hostage negotiator Alexandre Hay, president of the international committee of the Red Cross, and pianist Ray Charles, representing the National Organization on Disability.
He has used up all the medals for today.