IN THE INFORMATION room of inaugural committee headquarters the phones are ringing off the hook. Ellie Halley, who is in charge, bursts into the room. She grabs phone. "Inaugural committee, please hold," she presses a button on the phone and works her way down the line: "Inaugural committee, please hold. Inaugural committee, please hold." When she finishes, the ringing has stopped, but nine buttons are twinkling at her - nine angry people, who want tickets to something.
One of them could be the man in his 80s who called to say that this would probably be his last inaugural. Could he have some tickets? It could be the man who drove down from New York for tickets he thought were waiting for him. They weren't. He cried on the phone. It could be any one of the 300,000 people who received general invitations and thought they had been invited to one of the balls. They hadn't and they were hurt.
A call came in from the office of a New Jersey congressman. He needed six tickets. He got his six tickets. Upstairs, an Army lieutenant who is assigned to something called military protocol, was juggling admirals and generals. She sat on the desk of an inaugural committee official named Mac Lipcomb and reeled off some names and ranks. Would they receive their invitations by courier? Lipcomb nodded yes. He looked at me and picked up a bunch of yellow message slips. There must have been 50 of them. "This is from yesterday," he said. He thumbed through them and suddenly his face turned serious. "This one is from a bishop," he explained.
Lipscomb and I went downstairs and along a corridor. We made a left turn and stopped at a desk where a policeman sat. He was doodling on a yellow pad, and simply nodded as we walked by. We stopped before room 1506. There was a large lock on the door. Lipscomb took out a key he had just been given and opened the lock. Then he threw the bolt and entered the room. It was the invitation room - the inner sanctum, what the whole upcoming week is about.
The room has shelves on the left hand side. The first shelf is labeled "Jimmy Carter 500" and it once held Carter's personal invitation list - relatives and friends. It is empty now. Other shelves hold other lists, other kinds of invitations - invitations to the parties, to the parade, to the inauguration itself, to the Vice President's recepion and to the gala. I see an enveloped invitation for D.C. Mayor Walter Washington sitting there.
Lipscomb takes some invitations, closes the door and throws the bolt. Then the lock is snapped and the key returned. Back in the invitation room the phones are still ringing. There are no more invitations left on the shelves but people are still asking. Every green phone has nine buttons and all of them are lit. Many of the people who call are angry. They say they have been forgotten, ignored, taken for granted. One of the volunteers says the worst day was the day it was announced that Richard Nixon has been sent an invitation. The phones nearly exploded, she said.
Things have gotton out of hand. Lots of bruised feeling. I'm told. A Carter aide said he got a telegram from an entertainer who had appeared at a Carter funid-raising concert and had not been invited to the inaugural. The telegram was long, but it's message was clear: Drop dead. The aide says his mother called to tell him that all her friends, which she had recruited for the Carter campaign, have been invited to White House receptions. She wasn't.
Oh, such troubles. The stories break your heart. Something important is at stake here, people say. The columnists, Evans and Novak, weigh in with a piece called "The Inaugural Fiasco." They report that Democratic Biggies all over the country are furious at Carter, that in their eyes he had failed his first test as an administrator. This is serious stuff, no doubt about it.
But then something occurs to me while talking to the Carter aide and I start to laugh. At first, he doesn't understand.People are furious - what would be so funny? I have heard these stories before, I told him: They came drifting up the stairway to my room when I was a kid and my parents were planning my Bar Mitzvah. The world was coming apart - relatives were threatening revenge, cousins long thought dead wanted invitations, the comedian was threatening not to show, the Carter might be hit by a strike.
You want to know about protocal problems? I'll tell you about protocal problems. I'll tell you about cousins who won't sit next to each other or aunts who think they outrank other aunts and relatives who think that a $25 bond entitles them to a seat on the dais. I'll tell you about one Bar Mitzvah I attended where an aunt stormed out when she wasn't seated at the dais. She also stopped payment on her check.
The more I talked about this with the Carter aide, the more we laughed. I'm not sure if there was a Bar Mitzvah in his background, but surely something - a wedding, a sweet sixteen, a confirmation, a coming out party. I'm not sure which, but there is one thing I am sure of. Things could be worse.
At least Carter's voice isn't changing.