The Post assigned six high-powered reporters to the Venice economic summit knowing full well it was unlikely to get its money's worth. If the press turnout was anywhere near what it was at the last extravaganza there, they were part of a news contingent totalling 1,500, who also knew they'd have to settle for crumbs, and I don't mean pasta.
It cost the world media moguls a bundle for what they must have known was a bad investment. Some rough arithmetic suggests an aggregate figure of 15 million smackerinos, which, by coincidence, is what I figure it cost the Treasury to finance this high-level powwow. But The Post let the White House spokesman get away with a bland and outrageous estimate of "hundreds of thousands" as the price tag for the U.S. taxpayer.
The world will little note nor long remember what was said there; or written. Even Post economics columnist Hobart Rowen postponed his departure until the very last minute because he said there was more economic news in the capital than there would be in Venice. The most interesting story out of the Adriatic city was the one about the merchant of Venice who is alive and doing well, thanks to the economic summit meetings every seven years.
So why does a meeting of world leaders who aren't too sure themselves why they're there attract swarms of journalists? Well, for one thing, the food's good. And there's always the chance of violence.
From the standpoint of government officials, it does serve the purpose of getting them away from political problems at home. On the other hand, it sometimes creates problems. I was an assistant secretary for the Treasury at the time of the previous Venice summit, and I know.
For example, the secretary of the Treasury at that time was G. William Miller. You can imagine his hurt when he read in the papers that the secretary of state and Mrs. Muskie would be going to the economic conference on Air Force One, and he'd have to go commercial. He indicated if he wasn't going on the presidential plane, he wasn't going at all.
This was a major problem for me; if he didn't go, I didn't go. So I appealed to presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell. It was bound to leak to the press, we agreed, and that would get the summit off to a bad start. Jody Powell pried loose one seat on Air Force One. No sale. If Mrs. Miller couldn't go, forget it.
Secretary of Energy Charles Duncan came to the rescue. He was arranging to fly to Venice in an Air Force jet and insisted Secretary and Mrs. Miller accompany him. That sounded fine, until the Treasury secretary learned the Pentagon was charging $150,000, and Treasury would be expected to pick up half the tab.
When your sworn job is to pay the government's bills, even if you have to borrow a couple of trillion, you tend to spend the taxpayers' money as though it were your own. Secretary Miller said he'd go Pan Am. In that case, said Secretary Duncan, so would he. At the airport, Secretary Duncan was dismayed to learn that he was in first class and the Treasury secretary was in coach.
A Pan Am executive sought to solve this dilemma by offering to put Treasury up front at no extra cost. Secretary Miller declined. Secretary Duncan sighed and asked to be put in coach. He was turned down. Coach was booked solid.
So it was that in the year 1980 President Carter's secretary of energy and secretary of the Treasury flew together to the economic summit in Venice, one in first class, the other, coach. No one ever found out, and the markets remained stable.
Other problems developed in Venice. It was billed as an economic summit, but Treasury was all but ignored by the White House. Economics correspondents from Washington were invited to meet secretly with Treasury to get the real skinny on what the world leaders were talking about. This clandestine session was hardly under way when three representatives of the State Department and the White House descended on the meeting, rudely taking over the news briefing. The press thought it had been arranged that way.
As the Treasury secretary and I boarded the speedboat for the canal trip back to the hotel, he remarked with a faint smile: "Hardly paid us to come to Venice, did it?"
I imagine a lot of news correspondents, and their editors, are asking the same thing today.