It was not "a sea of red, eventually lapping at our own borders" -- as in President Reagan's phrase about the Sandinista threat. Last night's Nicaraguan Freedom Gala was instead a sea of pink -- as in unused tablecloths.
On the day that two more House committees rejected Reagan's $100 million aid package for the anti-Sandinista freedom fighters -- one day after two other committees did the same thing -- no one seemed to be violating the room-capacity laws.
The dress at the J.W. Marriott Hotel was "black tie optional." The dancing was halfhearted. The tables were wide open. The crowd was sparse.
The party, thrown by the Council for the Inter-American Security Educational Institute, was supposed to raise $30,000 for a newspaper and radio ad campaign during the legislative push. But of the 300 people expected to attend, only 100 or so did -- many of them leaving before the speeches.
Former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had received top billing for the occasion, was "felled by the flu," James Whelan, president of the group, told the partygoers. Bigwigs from the contras appeared, but other headliners, such as retired Army major general John K. Singlaub and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), were also unavailable, as were Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Vice President George Bush.
Understandably, the group tried to put the best face on things. L. Francis Bouchey, the institute's vice president, said his counterpart in the administration wasn't coming because he had already given the group a morning briefing. "And the vice president gave me two Carlos Marx commemorative postage stamps from Nicaragua," he added brightly.
The one attendee of senatorial rank was Chic Hecht (R-Nev.). Asked if his constituents cared about Nicaragua, he bristled, "Doggone right they care! We do not want a communist state so close to America. Managua is 1,000 miles closer to Nevada than Washington, D.C."
Others were more subdued."I am discouraged especially tonight," said Alfonso Callejas, an expatriate Nicaraguan businessman who lives in Miami.
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) noted that the House Armed Services Committee did vote favorably on the aid, making the committee count 4 to 1 against it. "That's 20 percent -- I think that's optimistic," he said with a stiff grin. "There's a lot of pessimism, but I'm not going to give up."
While Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.) traded Central American combat stories with Andy Messing of the National Defense Council Foundation, conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie was telling people, "I'm with The New York Times."
Viguerie, shedding his disguise, then said Nicaragua is "the hottest conservative issue since the Panama Canal." He predicted that defeat for the aid package would translate into electoral defeat for Democrats, "just like in the '78 elections, after the Panama Canal vote."
Reporters and photographers frantically looked for VIPs to interview and photograph. At one point, Hecht took pity on the Fourth Estate.
"Okay, okay, I'm going to give you a good one, so put this down," said the Nevada senator. "If we don't give them the aid, the next celebration in Moscow will be far better than the last. This time Gorbachev will send a plane for Ortega." Then he had a good laugh.
Late in the evening, Adolfo Calero, president of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, walked into the ballroom with Enrique Bermu'dez, a former colonel in Anastasio Somoza's national guard who is the organization's military commander.
Bermu'dez was immediately besieged. "I call him 'Adolfo,' he calls me 'Enrique,' " he responded to one reporter.
"Just say I am based somewhere in Central America," he told another.
"We have been fighting the Sandinistas for five years and the Sandinistas have not been able to defeat us," he added. "We have no doubt that we can win."
Asked if she was discouraged by the day's events, one woman said, "What do you think? I'm not going to be quoted." The woman, who would identify herself only as "a $250 contributor," added, "I came to be with the people who are here. Do you know how to do this dance?" Apparently no one did. Gene Donati's Orchestra had struck up a rendition of "Brazil," but the dance floor was bare.
"I'm having fun," said retired Army colonel Richard Lawrence, former chief of military intelligence for Central America and Singlaub's stand-in on the program. "Washington is a town that's full of competition in terms of parties -- I don't know what we're up against tonight."
Turning wistful, Lawrence reminisced about a similarly ill-attended gathering 15 years ago during which oysters on the half shell were a featured food. "No one else was around, so I ate about eight dozen."
No oysters were in evidence last night. Instead, there was an appropriately tropical spread of pineapples and bananas.