When the issues get emotional, America calls the White House. And this week's Libya crisis had the White House's 19 operators and 20 telephone volunteers scrambling at the switchboards.
According to the White House press office, the rate of calls about the Libya crisis was the second highest of all time, second only to that when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. And 80 percent of this week's callers, the press office said, supported President Reagan.
Monday, when U.S. planes bombed targets in Libya, was the busiest telephone day of the week. The comment office in the Old Executive Office Building,where most of the calls were directed, stayed open that night until 11:30. A White House official estimated that the number of calls to and from the White House during the 24-hour period from midnight Sunday until midnight Monday approached 136,000, with about 15,000 incoming callers receiving busy signals. Of the 136,000, approximately "60 to 70" percent were calls from the public, said the official, who, because of the possibility of receiving crank phone calls at his home, asked not to be named.
On Mondays, White House operators normally "process" an average of 46,000 calls over 24 hours.
On Tuesday the load of calls was up from the normal 47,000 to 159,000, with 16,000 callers thwarted by a busy signal. By Wednesday, ld,10 the calls had leveled off to 99,000 (normally 47,500), with about 2,500 getting busy signals.
The comment office, normally a 9-to-5 operation, stayed open until 8 p.m. Tuesday and 6 p.m. Wednesday, in answer to the heavy volume, according to Joan DeCain, director of the office.
The calls were tabulated primarily by telephone volunteers for President Reagan at the comment office. They were instructed to report briefly on the nature of each call. The calls were referred to them by the regular White House telephone operators, who are members of the White House administrative staff, holding ranks ranging from GS-5 to GS-13.
The volunteers "have a regular form," DeCain said,"which they tick in as to the category of the call -- reaction to the United States' action in Libya, tick in how the caller felt . . . I collect the telesheets every two hours, I add them up, and then check them on to the computer."
She declined to give a precise breakdown on the rate of calls or the positive-negative share but said "there were thousands of calls."
"People are emotionally involved," said DeCain."Our duty is to make sure the people who call here who don't agree with the president's policy are treated as graciously as the ones who do agree . . . But most people are very, very nice and patriotic -- they're calling the president of the United States because they're concerned."
"When you get into a situation like Libya," said the White House official,"a lot of people are calling in, for or against. Sure, you get irate persons who are not satisfied with something, who say, 'I'm going to call the White House or the president of the United States and get him to handle this situation. But as for the details, we don't have the capacity to get into that kind of thing."
The main switchboard operators "are not in any official position to make any comment on any situation," said the official, but they must learn to follow "the procedures and policies of dealing with the high officials, the protocol, dealing with heads of state, how to address them, how to speak to them."
The White House switchboard operators are there "to serve the president regardless of what party the president is from. They do not have their job because they are Democrats or Republicans, but because of their individual skill and performance."
It's a job with "a lot of tension, a lot of long hours," said the official. The average operator works at the White House for 10 to 12 years. Some, he said, have been here since the Truman administration.
The telephone staff consists of 17 women and two men. The comment office aides are "predominantly women," DeCain said, "but we make an effort to really be a melting pot."
The majority of the volunteer comment aides "work a full business day," she continued. "We have a very small turnover."
The workload for both operators and comment aides shifts with public issues. "Whenever there's a crisis," said the official, "the calls at the White House triple."
Such as the week Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. The rate of telephone calls directed to the White House during that week was "more than double" that of this week, the official said. The assassination of President Kennedy brought the third highest number, followed closely by mourners of Elvis Presley the week of his death in 1977.
"It seems kind of funny," he said of the Presley-related calls. "But a lot of the public called to make that day a public holiday. Elvis and Kennedy were just about equal. Maybe Kennedy had a slight edge on it."
Other big days at the switchboard included those after President Carter's pardoning of Vietnam draft evaders in 1977, and after the 1980 aborted rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran.
The number of telephone operators working at any one time, he said, can be "a maximum of 10 people to a minimum of three. That changes basically by the day." This week's personnel "exceeded the average work force." The comment aides (who also take care of the president's anniversary and birthday greeting cards to senior citizens) can number up to 20 when the going gets busy.
Operators, formerand present, were not made available for comment. The White House does not like to publicize the names of its operators and the staff members generally do not have their names listed in the telephone book, because "we have received threats against operators," said the official. "So we're reluctant to give out any names." Those threats come for "various reasons. There are a lot."
Summed up DeCain: "If you were to call an office like this and you were unhappy with the president on actions taken, and you were graciously re ceived, and your views were noted by the president, wouldn't you feel better? It doesn't mean you change your mind" -- or, obviously that the president necessarily will change his. "But your views were noted. We do still live in the greatest democracy of all."