GREEK SCOTCH, is what he said he was drinking. "Greek scotch," he repeated, asking if anyone had ever been to Greece and ever heard of the stuff. He was short, about 50, with a white mustache and he said that he had come to Washington to work for Jimmy Carter in the government. It was after midnight and he was very drunk.
He was standing in the lobby of the Sheraton Park Hotel early Wednesday morning and all around him the Georgians were whooping it up. They were in a good mood, a drinking mood, a hugging, back-slapping, God-it's wonderful-to-be-here mood. In the looby there was a big sign that said "Welcome to Washington, Georgians," and it told them that they could get an Atlanta station on channel five.
The Georgians drifted back and forth through the lobby in small groups, some of them with glasses in their hands.The man in the winter coat wanted to talk and so. I asked him if he was going to join the government. He had no Southern accent, but he played the game anyway. He nodded. He fenced with me. I started to name departments and agencies and he would shake his head, point to the ceiling and say "higher."
Finally, we reached the Pentagon.
"What's that?" he asked.
"The Defense Department."
Not the White House, I said in mock awe. He said nothing the way people say nothing when they want to know you're on the money. Instead, he rolled his eyes to the ceiling and his face went grave. Power does that to some people, only with this guy it was scotch. Another couple of belts and he would be in the Cabinet.
He wasn't the only person early Wednesday morning, who had assigned himself a slot on the White House staff. As you walked around the hotels you could hear the name of Jody or Hamilton or Jimmy being dropped wherever you went. You could look at these strolling the lobby with highball glasses in their hands, watch the women walking awkwardly in high heels and their men escorting them in a pompous strut, and say that this was a travesty - a circus and that the inauguration was nothing more than an event that would tie up traffic.
I started the evening thinking that way. We were in a Washington restaurant and were kidding about how we see administrations come and go, but we stay. It's the sort of superiority that permanent residents at a summer resort feel. To us, the inauguration had fouled up traffic and made it hard to get a table at restaurants.
Then the waiter moved two tables together near us and 12 people sat down. We could hear the Southern accents and we sized them up by dress and hair cut and style of suits - the important things. One person in our party asked if we had heard the expression "Georbgia Bonbon," which she explained meant some empty-headed but pretty thing. We looked at the table next to us.
It became clear after a while that the fellow at the end of the table, the one with the corduroy suit with the patches on the sleeves, was the guest of honor. He was going to work at the White House, and we heard him describe how earlier in the day he had seen his new Executive Building office.
"It has a fireplace," he said.
Slowly, the restaurants filled with Carter people. The Republicans who frequent the restaurant were gone this night. They will return soon as lawyers and lobbyists and have the word former before their names. Robert Lipschultz, who will be the White House counsel, came in to eat. He dropped by the table where the young White House aide was eating and shook his hand.
There was a woman at our table who had worked in the primaries for Fred Harris. Across the room, there was a guy who had woked for Morris Udall. A slip here, a move there and they could have been the ones celebrating. That's the breaks. Pretty soon the restaurants was wall-to-wall Carter people. They bounced from table to table, greeting each other, hugging and kissing, a wet eye here and there.
It got to me and maybe I should apologize for not being more cynical - for not writing a column about drunks and buffoons and how when the last music of the parade had faded, the government will consume them all. There is something to that. But there is also something to seeing someone bursting with pride because he will work at the White House, about seeing the transition come creeping through a Washington restaurant like the fog in a Carl Sanburg poem. Suddenly, it is here and now there is nothing more than the oath, a parade and some dancing.
Later I am back at the hotel and the drunk has turned nasty. He is no longer on the White House staff, but instead sees himself as a fighter. He threatens to break my neck, but he is short, and older than me and very drunk. He should have stayed on the White House staff.
This town would be his.