THERE WAS A PARTY for the press at the White House last month and those of us who are either White House correspondents, or important columnists or editors, as is the case with me, married to one of those, got a chance to go. It was a nice party. We got to see the White House and we got to see the president and we got to see also, why this administration is having trouble with this town. It has to do with thinking too hard.
It was my first White House party as a guest, or more specifically, as the guest of a guest, and so I have to admit to being a hit dazzled. I have to admit, also, to having gone up the receiving line on the stairs absolutely sure that someone would come along and tell me what to say and what to do when I got to the president, but that never happened. Instead, I just got there and a military aide said my name and my wife's name and then I said, "Good evening, Mr. President" to him and "Good evening, Mrs. President" to her and didn't realize until the sentence was half-way out of my mouth what I was saying.
Anyway, I gave Rosalynn Carter a look out of the corner of my eye and went away assured she had not really heard me and then went about my business.I looked around and checked things out, it being partly my house also, and then bumped into the president's press secretary, Jody Powell, and realised that he was one of the first administration figures I'd seen. I mentioned this to some colleagues and we quickly figured out it was only us - us and the president and the various press secretaries. We were being shunned, we concluded, shown once again what we are thought of. We ate the president's food and concluded that Washington was back to normal.
Well, it turned out that we were wrong. It turned out, we learned later, that someone had decided to limit the party to just the press on the assumption that the press would prefer it that way. On the assumption that if other administration people came, it would look like they were horning in, crashing or something.
Now you have to think about that for a moment because it tells you something about the Carter administration. It tells you that these are people who are not natural politicians, who give the matter too much thought, who have to think so hard about what would be politic that they often wind up doing something that is not. The fact of the matter is that reporters would have loved to have administration figures at the party. We can always talk among ourselves. As for the administration, this would have been the perfect time to meet some editors and columnists who are usually not found in the White House press room; an opportunity, also, to meet what used to be called The Wife, the quandam little woman who, theory has it, might be able to influence what is written.
This is precisely the sort of thing that Washington complains about. This is the sort of thing you hear from congressmen and senators and others. They tell you stories that reflect no political savvy, stories about an administration mentality that treats everything as a management problem or one that will become soluble when enough time is allotted to the study of it. The fact of the matter is that some problems are solved by bourbon and branch water - whatever that is.
But the Carter administration persists in being unpolitical or apolitical. It's hard to tell which. Until the other day, for instance, the Republican leader in the Senate, Howard Baker, had been to the White House only twice on business and not once for a bipartisan leadership conference. That takes some doing. It takes some doing, too, to take the simple finding of a U.S. attorney and turn it into a test of administration credibility. It took, in face, a president who promised too much and then could not simply say that he was being political. Instead, we got the sort of rhetorical double-talk that characterized the Bert Lance affair.
There is more - much more. There is a budget that isn't balanced but which was supposed to be and an energy bill that isn't going anywhere and a Mideast situation in which we are not quite always at the center of things and much else that tells you that this administration has got a lot to learn.
We are talking about this the other night and I, for one, was talking about the White House party, going on about what it symbolized, when on medical furlough from prison and the mention of his name stopped me in my tracks. It made me think about the old days, about how there was a time when you could not turn your back on Washington for fear it would do something mean or nasty or threatening. There was a time when the scandal in this town was an attorney general who sat through and blackmail and the use of prostitutes and didn't say a word in protest - well, maybe just a word. He was concerned about the money it would cost.
Anyway, you think about how things used to be and think about the ways things are now and you cannot help but think that the Carter administration has in fact done something and done something very important. It has lowered the anxiety level in this town; and while it may at times be clumsy, it is no menace.
It's been a while since you would say that about the government.