The vigorously clean-cut high school students strolled boldy into the White House yesterday, greeted by portraits of past First Ladies and an architectural opulence that left them in awe of the official residence of the president of the United States.
On the eve of Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, this looked to be just the kind of group he would want for a Republican romp into the next generation.
After all, the students were from the prestigious St. Ann's High School in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., many of them sons and daughters of well-to-do Republicans invited to Washington to watch democracy in action on this inaugural weekend.
But soon after the White House tour began, the young people proved this image false.
Passing a display of gold-rimmed chinaware bearing the executive seal, Jeffery Yang, 16, exclaimed, "He ought to use Tupperware." Hearing that the White House had 100 rooms on three floors, his classmate, Ian Harris, 15, remarked, "Why can't he just live in an apartment?"
Some older tourists were visibly stunned at their irreverence, and one woman tried to hush the students, as if they were in a cathedral.
Another stared coldly at the kids and tried to counter their remarks by loudly praising Nancy Reagan's "good taste in dinner plates."
But the students continued unabashedly -- jabbing at Reagan's policy in Central America, condemning the U.S. invasion of Grenada, sneering at "Star Wars" space contingencies and blasting the extravagance of the inauguration in the face of a mounting federal deficit.
"I don't like his stand on school prayer and I don't like his position on abortion," said Yang. "His interference in these matters is Orwellian."
"The thing that makes me sick is that he is basically unfair," said Harris, one of the few blacks in the group.
"I'm from a lower-middle-class family and we are catching the blues. This 'trickle down' thing is nothing but a trick."
Of the 20 students who made the trip, only one was for Reagan: Matthew Auran, 17, the son of Mondale supporters. Coolly, he waded into the fray.
"Reagan is for an opportunity society, and I believe he has brought stability to our nation after two decades of political turmoil," Auran said.
"Hah!" Yang cracked.
"He has brought optimism back to the American people and made us feel good about ourselves," Auran continued.
"Hah! Hah!" scoffed Harris.
"We are dealing with the Soviet Union again because they are afraid of us," Auran said.
"Dealing in fear," Yang retorted. "Boy, are you short-sighted."
"They are Russians!" Auran argued.
"Oh, yes, I forgot," Yang said sarcastically. "That old 'Evil Empire.' "
Both Yang and Auran are members of the St. Ann's debate team, and they frequently oppose each other in academic debates. But the idea of arguing about Reagan in his own house had brought them to new rhetorical heights.
And after a while adults were listening instead of trying to shut them up.
For students not engaged in debate, there was an abundance of Americana to spark their thoughts. Some could be heard yelling, "Bronco Billy," upon seeing the Frederic Remington cowboy sculpture, "Coming through the Rye." And a portrait of Gerald Ford prompted one to muse, "Now there was a decent man." But as they entered the magnificently chandeliered East Room, where the slain John F. Kennedy once laid in state, Jeff Yang was moved to chin-stroking thoughtfulness.
"This is a seriously beautiful room," he said.
And as they neared the end of the tour, even the most critical of the students seemed suddenly enraptured by what they had witnessed within.
"I feel something here that's bigger than any one man," said Harris.
Auran added, "There is an aura of electricity -- being at this place, at this time. I think we both can agree on that."
And while it was unlikely that Reagan would find new converts among the senior class of St. Ann's, he could perhaps take comfort in knowing that