THE STAFF of the congressman to inherit our office space comes by for an inspection. Apologetic for the circumstances that necessitate this intrusion, they assure us that they won't hold us to the formal noon eviction time the House had set for the following Monday.
I take them on a tour of the suite that has been home to Bob Eckhardt and his staff for 14 years. The rooms are overflowing with antique oval tables and overstuffed red leather armchairs he found while foraging through the Capitol basement. Yes, I reply to their unmuffled delight, it all stays.
This is a scenario we are getting used to. Following an erroneous newspaper account that all was being thrown out, other offices have called for everything from our Social Security pamphlets to unused funds.
The mail, which used to be delivered in large bundles several times a day, has trickled down to offers of assistance from downtown employment agencies that can already smell our carcasses. Even the lobbyists, who generously sent us their unsolicited gifts of citrus fruit, pralines and calendars in Christmases past, know their dollars can be more wisely spent. Instead, old friends drop off homemade fruit cake and heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies.
This evening, I go through my yoga exercise at a neighborhood school -- my jealously guarded hour of self-indulgence in a work environment that seldom allows participation in regularly scheduled activities.
Feeling relaxed and open, I queeze into a tiny Georgetown apartment with a crowd of lawyers, government workers and realtors in honor of the anniversary of a friend's "35th birthday." We play a guessing game peculiar to Washington, where whom you work for and your title are as much your identity as your name.
On the way home, my car radio delivers the news of John Lennon's fatal shooting. Yet another loss. I cry for the idol of my teen years and for the society that produces such senseless violence. I turn on my TV once home, but there is no special coverage at this late hour. I console myself by drifting off to sleep to Beatle music. Tuesday
Today, we are packing up Eckhardt's legislative career in dozens of mispelled "House of Representives" cartons to be shipped to the Houston Public Library. The staffers, who once aided the veteran architect of numerous public laws, now content themselves with the building of cardboard box towers in the hallway.
New constituent problems which cannot be resolved right away are referred to the congressman-elect. When callers query us about what to do if their new congressman fails to help, we politely consel them what they can do something -- in two years.
I spy a letter on another staffer's desk, a request from a student in our district who wants an internship with Eckhardt next summer.
Tonight, Rep. Henry Conzalez and his staff fete us at a supper where tributes to the nearly legendary Texas liberal flow as freely as the beer. A visiting reporter takes me and another newsman to the Class Reunion, the press hangout where the appearance of a departing newspaper bureau chief can create a greater clamor than a Eugene McCarthy, looking much older than the presidential peace candidate of my college years. While the out-of-towner talks about how many public officials he has put in jail this year, it is the local reporter's mention of "putting in overtime" that catches my ear. I realize how out of touch I have become when I make him confirm that such a practice exists outside of the Hill, where long hours are de rigeur and labor laws do not apply. Wednesday
Our spirits are up this morning. A supporter calls to say that he has received an apartment rental application from a campaign aide of the young attorney who defeated Eckhardt at the polls. When questioned about his loyalties, he retorts: "It's okay -- I upped the rent $50!"
A wire service reporter asks me to arrange the obligatory "exit interview" with Eckhardt, where he will be asked for the umpteenth time that day why he lost, what is to become of Congress and of his own future. So many requests have come in and so many have I sat through that I momentarily toy with the notion of cutting a master tape to play to the press instead. Just as I conjure up these jaded thoughts, however, the journalist, who has been a friendly but necessary adversary in hundreds of conversations, takes me by surprise. "You know," he blurts out, "I am really going to miss you . . ."
I stop by a Christmas party of the Florida State Society in hopes of renewing old contacts. In a town where until recently Republicans had to stand in line to get noticed, I watch as new Republican San. Paula Hawkins is courted by Hill Staffers, who queue up for the opportunity to plug their availability. Thursday
Most of the staff -- some of whom came up from Texas with Eckhardt and have known only him as an employer -- are coming and going from job interviews, job fairs or job seninars. One wears a rich-looking white suit to interview for a $50,000-a-year job with the next administration. "Do I look Republican enough?" she coos.
There are other indications that our lives are about to change. The administrative assistant, whose habit of working straight through lunch caused much concern about her health among the office secretaries, now suggests going out to lunch. And there are a few frantic calls for letters of reference from former staffers.
Despite the closing of our offices however, many of us will be tending to unfinished housekeeping chores the next few months. I make some calls to locate a band and a hall for a fundraising dance to retire the campaign debt. Just when I think I have the ideal location for the event later this winter, I learn the facility is not heated. I decide to keep looking, even though the manager insists that once people get dancing they will be able to take their coats off.
I pack up my old press releases, my thesaurus and perhaps more importantly, my card files in a town where it is said, "You are only as good as your Roldex," and find myself alone. The air of finality has set in. I ride down with the elevator operator I have come to know on a first name basis, chat briefly with the night officer about job leads and then say goodnight to the corner policeman who watches me get safely inside my car. I feel like there has been a death in the family. And there has -- ours.
I get home to witness Hodding Carter, former press spokesman to the secretary of state, appear as a guest on "The Tonight Show." NBC is promoting the latest acquisition to its news team. The inequity grates upon me. The Carter administration staff who handed over the country to the Republican Party go on to sit with Johnny Carson. But what about the rest of us who lost our jobs in the watershed? I think the White House has really let down a lot of people. Friday
There is an incongruous air of gaiety as we prepare for our combination Christmas/farewell party with Eckhardt's subcommittee staff. But the festivities get interrupted as the page proofs come back from his last quarterly report to his constituents on energy inflation, and thne chief New York Times correspondent calls. He tells the newsman of the irony of having received a compaign contribution from Reagan's treasury secretary-designee when Carter's energy secretary contributed against him in the primary (his brother-in-law being the unsuccessful challenger). The congressman, who among other things plans to practice law in Washington, says rather drolly of the call: "I don't think advertising that connection will hurt business one bit."
A Houston TV film crew is allowed to shoot only briefly, this being a private moment for us. No speeches. No tears. Only a dignified toast in a slow drawl "to the best staff in Congress. No, let me amend that . . . on earth." The congressman, who wore those funny bow ties and rumpled suits, is shuffled off to the airport for the last time by his staff for a speech the next day in his district, and the party quietly breaks up.
Tonight, I will go out in style with two more Christmas parties. One is at a public interest energy law firm where some Eckhardt admirers learn for the first time that he isn't coming back to the 97th Congress. "Oh, they got him, too?" they sigh in disbelief. At another, I shell out $10 for an enterprising friend who decided to throw her own funraiser. Now, that's chutzpah! Saturday
I sleep late and find a prominent and flattering tribute to my boss in the morning's paper. I think how it will please him, and feel a deep sense of pride well up in me to have been able to work for a man of his stature, integrity and talents. But I also feel the weight of the last two hectic years in Congress and of the career decisions which lie ahead. I decide to flow with the holiday spirit and accept invitation to see a Redskins home game. Even the Redskins seem to have trouble pulling off a satificatory performance for their fans as they squeak to a narrow victory over the New Giants. It hasn't exactly been a banner year for Washington. And the prospects? Well, let's worry about that next year . . .