Like a rerun of television's "Saturday Night Live," the old jokes resurfaced yesterday in a brief flashback filled with bittersweet nostalgia. Republican activist Fulton Lewis III rose before 370 Northern Virginia party members assembled for breakfast and announced, "The president of the United States."
Everyone stood and applauded heartily. Nothing happened.
The 740 eyes, mirrors of anticipation, searched first to the right, where a waitress bearing coffee appeared unknowingly. Then, as if on cue, turned for a long, bewildered inspection of the rear as the hotel conference room fell into a queasy silence.
"Like I said," said Lewis into the void, "the president of the United States."
And there, from another corner of the room, bobbed the blond square head known so well. Gerald R. Ford, beaming, pumped hands with gusto on his way to the head table while reassurance and warmth settled like dew on the early-morning crowd.
"I'm especially glad to be back in Alexandria," Ford said. Four years ago that remark might have made headlines, but yesterday nobody seemed to mind that the hotel is actually in Arlington, nearly two miles from the Alexandria border.
In many ways, Ford's appearance yesterday in the Virginia suburbs, where he lived for most of his 25 years in Congress, was a homecoming. He may not command the title of the party's standard-bearer, but yesterday morning he found himself the favorite, the returning son, surrounded by his old neighbors as well as political admirers.
Neither he nor his admirers could resist invoking the old memories ("Betty and I have so many good memories of the years we lived here," Ford said), and the air filled with musings of "what if?"
But politicians -- even Republicans -- seldom get up at 7 a.m. just to say hello. It was no coincidence that Ford found his seat squarely between fellow Republicans Stan Parris and Frank Wolf. Parris and Wolf are in pitched battles for Northern Virginia's 8th and 10th District congressional seats, respectively.
The faces of Wolf and Parris on campaign posters had been hung to appear prominently over Ford's head. And while the former president signed autographs and dug into his fruit cocktail with apparent relish, and Wolf stared blankly into space, and Parris splashed coffee on the back of his throat, the cameras whirred and clicked to capture it all just so.
It may be too early to tell what role food will play in these critical races. But so many other things have been latched onto as political indicators that it should probably be recorded that Ford dispatched his fruit cup down to the last scrap, while Wolf left what looked like an orange section and Parris stuck to his coffee.
(Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), having no one to talk to on the other side of the podium, munched thoughtfully on the eggs benedict and chicken crepe, peering with steely eyes over his plate.)
This was a chance for Wolf to say something momentous, but he resisted. After a brief shower of platitudes he yielded to Parris, who reminded the audience how much better off the country would be if Gerald Ford had been ELECTED FOUR YEARS AGO INSTEAD OF jimmy Carter.
"Don't you long for the good old days?" he queried, rhetorically. "Do you remember the Mayaguez incident? And compare that with the fact that today is the 344th day of captivity" for Americans held hostage in Iran. "If Ford were president," Parris speculated, "those hostages would be home with their families today.
"We can't put Ford back in the White House," Parris rued, "but we can kick Jimmy Carter out and tell him to take [Joseph L.] Fisher and [Herbert E.] Harris with him." Fisher and Harris are the Democratic incumbents Wolf and Parris are trying to beat.
For his part, Ford achieved what to some approaches the impossible. On mentioning, all in jest, that the two candidates might be asking for contributions, Wolf's stubbornly stoic face suddenly mobilized into a shortlived grin.
In a later press conference remark that must have been pleasing, Ford expressed his distate for the current flood of religious groups into this year's campaigns. "I have never felt that organized religion should get itself involved in any campaign," he said.
One of Wolf's principal contributors is a Moral Majority religious group operating out of Norfolk.
To the 60 local prominents who paid $500 each for the fund-raiser breakfast, and the other 310 who kicked in $50 apiece, Ford delivered a fiery address. He lashed out at Carter, blaming the president for inflation, unemployment and diminished U.S. esteem and strength abroad.
"This administration's economic policies," he said, "are the worst, the poorest since the depression. We handed him the economy on a silver platter and Jimmy Carter blew it."
And in a self-effacing way he winked at his own treatment by the press. "I have to concede that retirement hasn't been all that bad," said Ford. "In fact, I would recommend it for Jimmy Carter at the earliest possible moment. I fall down less on the snowy slopes of Colorado and I hit less spectators on the [golf] fairways."
The latest joke being told about him by Bob Hope, he said, "I lost two golf balls in the ball washer" recently. "He says I can play on four courses simultaneously," Ford jested. "He said the other day I had a wonderful game. I shot an eagle, a birdie, a moose, an elk and a mason."