The questions were simple. One: Who was that woman in pink dress and turban talking to Ronald Reagan Wednesday night on nationwide television? And two: How did she get into the presidential press conference?
Answer No. 1: The woman was Gertrude Engel. As Reagan left the East Room at the end of the conference, the insistent voice of the health lobbyist and journalist cut through the press clamor and caught Reagan's attention. The International Federation of Body Builders has honored him, she said as befuddled reporters looked on.
Answer No. 2: Engel gets around. In her brightly colored clothes and matching shoes, she is familiar to many, one of those Washington characters who appear at parties and press events. She is often seen asking politicians if they take vitamins, and she attends most presidential press conferences, which are open to anyone with Secret Service press clearance for the White House.
"I had been trying to get an appointment with the president," Engel said yesterday. When her requests for a meeting were denied, she decided the press conference was the only way.
"I was sitting in the back. I ran forward. I nearly tripped on the camera. I said, 'Mr. President -- I have a message for you!' I told him, 'I'm going to make your heart glow!' "
And while America and the president watched, she delivered her message on behalf of the Montreal-based body builders organization, which has affiliates in 128 countries, although Wednesday night Engel said 127.
Members of the White House press office said they weren't sure that the president, having fielded the usual lighthearted postconference questions about such things as baseball, was completely aware of what Engel was talking about.
"I don't think anything like that has ever happened before," said Dale Petrosky, White House assistant press secretary. "We have a number of people like that who cover the White House," he said of Engel. "They fulfil all the necessary requirements under Secret Service investigation. If they are no threat, they are allowed to come into the White House under various conditions."
Engel has been in Washington for 17 years, running her own Liberty News Service, writing for publications like Let's Live, a health and nutrition monthly magazine published in Los Angeles, doing public relations and generally talking about what one Engel observer called "clean water, clean air issues."
And in Washington, there are plenty of places to talk. Every year, for example, Engel speaks before the House Appropriations subcommittee on health and human services during budget hearings open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. But never before Wednesday night have so many heard her.
"My office told me the phone is ringing off the hook," said Benjamin Weider, president of the body builders federation. "A lot of people want to know what it's all about."
"I was asked to give you this message," Engel told Reagan Wednesday, "and I've been trying to tell it to you forever." Mission accomplished.