EARLY IN THE MORNING, the secretaries were fired.
They got the word by memo. The Reagan people had said they would list the names of secretaries in the White House speech office they would keep. When the memo came back, no names were checked.
Out on Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowds watched both Blair House and the White House. Jimmy Carter was in one and Ronald Reagan in the other and it was almost as if the crowds were there to see power change hands. In a matter of hours, Reagan would be in the White House and Carter would be on his way to Plains. So says the Constitution. So says the clock.
In the White House press room, reporters squatted or sat on the floor. They waited for news of Iran.They waited to learn if the president was going to go to West Germany. They waited to learn if the hostages would be freed, if the money had changed hands, if the Bank of England had done this and the Iranians that.
Jody Powell had lunch. Hamilton Jordan had lunch. They looked tired. They had been up most of the night and when they left the White House mess Jordanstopped to say goodbye to a steward: "You're a great man," he said. "You're a great man and I thank you."
On Thursday, beer will return to the White House mess after four years. Richard Nixon and Jerry Ford had beer every Thursday with the Mexican lunch. Jimmy Carter kept the lunch, but banned the beer. On Thursday, it will come back. cMaybe wine, too.
All day long, the clock moved. All day long everyone watched the clock and checked watches. There was a time to go to Germany and a time to go to Algiers. There was a time to do this or that andstill get back to Washington for the inauguration. There was Washington time and Germany time and Iran time and Algerian time. The times of the world ticked away at the White House yesterday -- tick, tock.
The floors of the White House are covered with boarding. It makes it easier to move the boxes. The halls of the White House are stacked with boxes. Picture hangers wait for new pictures and the drawers of desks have been emptied. The staff members who have nothing to do with Iran wait. The others wait, too. Only the clock seemed to know what it was doing and the clock ticked on.
Outside on the street, the limousines cruised by. They were filled with people here for the inauguration. Limousines. You never saw so many limousines. They have California tags and New York tags and New Jersey tags and, of course, Washington, Virginia and Maryland tags. Most of them have special inaugual tags. They boast the names of corporations and some of the corporations are going broke, but that is all to change. It is, isn't it?
The people in the limos look rich and healthy. The women look great. The men look ruddy. It seems that nothing improves your complexion like wealth. They were going to cocktail parties and galleries and museums. You could hear them discussing their plans on the street. Later today, they come into power. Later today, just like that, the world will place a crisis in their lap.
Efrem Zimbalist and I had dinner in the same restaurant. He looks like a movie star. Maybe he'll be the next president. He already has a military aide -- it seems everyone does. A helicopter is permanantly hovering over my house. The Washington police have learned nothing from the Vietnam War. They think that if they control the skies, they also control the ground. Helicopters or not, some Republican will be mugged.
The Carter staff wrote a little speech for the president. He was to give it Sunday night when the hostages were freed, but the hostages were not freed. Someone who read it said it was a good speech. It is too late to give it now.
It is always too late for Jimmy Carter. The man seems jinxed by the clock. He thought he could have won the election if he had another day or two. This was not true, but this is what he thought. He could have brought the hostages home if he had a little bit more time. He could have flown to Germany. He could have flown to Algeria.
In the White House mess, someone suggested that the president borrow a supersonic Concorde from the British or the French. Someone else wondered if the Concorde was fast enough or had the range. No one seemed to know. They all checked their watches again. Someone suggested that Reagan could send Carter to Germany after the inauguration as his emissary. Someone else said that would be just grand. No one then knew Reagan had already made the offer.
Outside, camera crews waited on the White House lawn. Outside, the crowds lined the street. Outside, some of them looked at Blair House and some of them looked at the White House and everyone just waited. Time was running out on Jimmy Carter. Later today, the government will change hands and Ronald Reagan becomes president. He'll have a crisis to contend with.
He'll also need some secretaries.