There they go again. I'm talking about Ronald Reagan's rich friends, the kind who look at sybaritic squalor and reach for a length of designer fabric to wipe away their tears.
Iris and Raymond Rossi -- they're the Pizza Hut Rossis -- went to the American Embassy in Rome last summer, and Mama Mia, found it truly seedy. After brooding about it for almost a year, they decided to act in the spirit of voluntarism that Ronald Reagan is trying to promote -- and has achieved most notably in the refurbishing of classy places.
Other people have visited the Villa Taverna in Rome and found it splendid. It has marble floors, marble pillars, mosaics, frescoes. Its garden is the size of a small national park.
But you might as well have shown the Rossis a burned-out tenement in the South Bronx. After playfully reproving the current occupants, Ambassador and Mrs. Maxwell Rabb, for failing to halt creeping dinginess ("naughty, naughty", chided Ms. Rossi), Iris and Raymond reconstituted themselves as a Salvation Army to rescue this outpost of America from -- well, it's not absolutely clear what.
Apparently, it was as much what they did not see as what they saw that prompted the Rossis to take decisive action.
Where the palace is truly needy, according to Mrs. Rossi, is in "things like a little statuary, ashtrays, some extra chairs, a silver tea set, sofas, new upholstery on the dining room chairs, damask for the walls, exterior paint."
If you do not choke up at the thought of this deprivation among the privileged, you perhaps ought not to call yourself a Republican, or at least a friend of Ronald Reagan's. Mrs. Rossi has proven herself a true believer by joining the White House Preservation Fund, another heroic private-sector redecoration initiative, which asks a mere $250,000 per person to enlist in the unending campaign to restore the White House to the elegance which was apparently permanently menaced by the four-year tenancy of the Jimmy Carters. The window of vulnerability on antiques and original paintings is still open.
Republicans responded -- you remember -- as to an earthquake or a flood when the Reagans moved in. They passed the hat and raised $800,000 almost overnight to rid the family quarters of any lingering traces of terminal tackiness from the Georgia occupation.
Republican charity is special. It is not activated by the sight of a ragged child, an unemployed father or a Social Security client whose disability is cut off. It has to do with things, not people.
They burn, they bleed when they see a worn damask wall, a niche bereft of a bibelot, or a space that cries out for an ashtray, especially if it is the pad of some prominent, well- heeled person whom they know well and would like to know better.
That's when they haul out the monogrammed safety net.
They start up a tax-deductible foundation, give a $100-a-head cocktail buffet -- and in this case, announce a quarterly ($2,500 per subscription) luncheon series at which Gen. James Dozier, the liberated Red Brigades kidnap victim, will be the first speaker.
Perhaps his subject will be "The Role of Interior Decoration in U.S. Foreign Policy." Surely the subject is one of impassioned interest to those thousands of Italians who have been living in tents and trailers since the 1980 earthquake -- not to mention Neapolitans, some of whom spend their lives in shacks so crowded you'd have to put a silver tea-set on a baby.
It is too early to tell how Americans will respond to the drive to keep the Villa from becoming a Bedford-Stuyvesant, and it could be slow among those who already live in the real thing. There may be the odd sorehead on the unemployment line or the welfare mother with rotting linoleum on the kitchen floor who might reach for a pike on hearing about dollars for damask.
It is interesting to note that the Rossis' preoccupation with rehabilitating deluxe habitats was not reflected this week by Republicans holding public office.
In a surprising reversal of the Reagan doctrine of giving money to the rich, 128 Republican House members did something quintessentially Democratic -- that is, offering money to people who need it. The voted a $1 billion housing subsidy for people who wouldn't know where to go looking for antique statuary.
They may have strayed from Reagan orthodoxoy because of having to face the voters this fall. They may have anticipated the difficulty of explaining the Reagan philosophy of spending -- private money for decor, public funds for defense.
They may well have thought that the idea might be thrown out of the house, and them with it, in November.