Perhaps appropriately for the 1,853rd breakfast, the subdued crowd of reporters and politicians came more to toast Godfrey Sperling Jr. of The Christian Science Monitor than to roast him.
On the 20th anniversary of his political breakfast club, the punches yesterday were gentle, as soft as the 109,680 barely scrambled eggs that Robert E. Thompson of Hearst Newspapers calculated had been eaten over the years. And most of those who tried to cut through the communal fog that naturally invades an event that begins at 8 a.m. preferred skewering somebody besides Sperling, sometimes known as "the undisputed king of cholesterol."
For example, former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Strauss, who has appeared at more Sperling breakfasts than any other guest, aimed at the reporters who regularly cover the two to three Sperling events each week.
"When I first started doing these breakfasts," Strauss told about 120 people at the Sheraton-Carlton, "Evans and Novak had credibility."
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) mostly went global: "A fact-finding team sent here by Marcos just concluded that Mondale won the '84 election," he said. "I don't know whether this is any consolation, but apparently Mrs. Marcos has had an offer to do a TV commercial for Diet Pepsi."
The 70-year-old Sperling, known as "Budge" since he was a boy, seemed overwhelmed by the kindness -- or perhaps the lack of irreverence that usually pervades such events. His chin trembling slightly as he thanked his staff, his editor and the two well-known waiters who have served viscous black coffee to endless numbers of grumbling reporters, Sperling decided to hit some of the highlights over the last 20 years, disobeying the hosts of the event, who made him promise to talk for only 10 minutes.
He recalled when former senator S.I. Hayakawa demanded a special meal of canned sardines on lettuce -- a spectacle that greatly diminished the amount of eggs, bacon, orange rings and dry toast ingested elsewhere around the table.
He recalled being told "a rowdy quip" by former Carter White House aide Midge Costanza -- a comment Sperling also did not tell his audience of admirers. (Later, with obvious discomfiture, Sperling told a reporter he had been thanking Costanza for her appearance at the breakfast when she said: "I guess you should thank me, Godfrey. You've had a whole hour with your hand on my knee.")
Former agriculture secretary Earl Butz once told a joke about the pope, Sperling said. But the strait-laced Sperling, who is still shocked by some of the raunchiness of politics and journalism, did not retell the Butz story in such a public forum.
California Gov. Ronald Reagan, he reminisced, kept combing, combing, combing his hair before he met the Sperling crowd -- a reaction that a former Reagan aide attributed to his nervousness about encountering the lions of the Washington press corps, Sperling remembered.
There were breakfasts that also made news, of course. Ever since Sperling called a few reporters and set up his first session in 1966 with senatorial candidate Charles Percy, politicians have been explaining how they aren't going to run, when more often than not they are. And some have come to explain how they are going to win, when it's clear that, with a few exceptions, they aren't.
Through the years, many of Washington's famous have submitted to the early-morning sessions, most of them grousing only about the fact that the guest at a Sperling breakfast never gets to eat breakfast.
Only a few have been reluctant. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) declined for years until recently, and his staff members told reporters he refused to come because Sperling would not allow Boston Globe reporters at his events.
"The editors of The Monitor, also based in Boston felt that it was a competitive thing until recently," Sperling said. But the current editor, Katherine W. Fanning, has decided to include Globe bureau members who wanted to attend.
"I let them in when the editor let them in," Sperling said.
Sperling added that he had also heard from some of Kennedy's former campaign strategists that they did not want the senator at the breakfast because they feared he would make a mistake "in a context that is not carefully structured."
"I also haven't had much luck with Tip O'Neill, either," Sperling said. "I understand he doesn't like to get up that early in the morning."
The most vigorous rejection of an invitation came from Jeane Kirkpatrick, then U.N. ambassador. Sperling said he saw her at a National Press Club event and asked her why she didn't appear.
"She said she didn't like the coverage she was getting at my paper about the U.N.," said Sperling of an encounter he remembers as being unusually unpleasant.
"She was really tough on me," he said, then smiled as he realized that what he said would be in print. "Oh well, I guess I'll never be able to get her now."
Sperling says that he has no plans to slow down invitations to his morning ritual, which continues to take place about twice a week. Present at yesterday's celebration were Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, FBI Director William Webster, Time columnist Hugh Sidey, former defense secretaries Clark Clifford and Melvin Laird, former Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O'Brien and former Washington Star editor Murray Gart.
But today it's business as usual. As senior Washington columnist for The Monitor, Sperling has lured Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado to breakfast, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) is scheduled for Wednesday.
Next week, the guest is President Reagan. But for the president, the breakfast is different. For one thing the number of reporters hits the upper limit of about 50. The White House cooks and serves the eggs in the Gold Room, and the president gets to determine the hour -- which turns out to be 9 a.m. instead of the usual 8 a.m.
The secret of turning a morning meal into an institution, Sperling said, is to keep the sessions informal and invite veteran reporters to participate. "Most of the experienced reporters are the ones who know the best way to get information is to be civil."
But it is also an hour of the day when many of Washington's workaholics aren't yet working.
"I found that almost all public figures were available at that time," said Sperling with a laugh. "And so are the newsmen, if they're willing to get out of the sack on time."