It was nearing midnight on New Year's Eve when the jolly partygoers in Americus, Ga., decided that the thing to do was to have one more round and call the President.
A long-distance call was placed to Vail, Colo., and in time a communications officer came on the line to explain that the vacationing President Ford was at a private dinner and could not be disturbed.
"Just tell him it's the press corps," the callers pleaded. In a moment, Gerald R. Ford came to the telephone for a spirited, cheerful quarter-hour of conversation with the "White House regulars," the reporters who had covered his 29 months as President.
The talk with Ford put the reporters in such a good mood that they decided to offer similar greetings to their new charge, President-elect Jimmy Carter, who was celebrating with his family just down the road in Plains.
The call was placed. An official in Plains explained that Carter could not be disturbed. "Tell him it's the press corps," the caller pleaded, and the official agreed to pass on the message. But the reporters received neither a call nor a message from Carter.
In retelling that story to their editors and colleagues, the White House regulars invariably observe that "it probably doesn't mean anything" or that "it's really insignificant."
But the story does seem significant, if only because so many Washington reporters are telling it. It seems to symbolize the feeling, held by many reporters here, that the press and the President are in for four fractious years.
"Carter may have a honeymoon with Congress, but he's not going to have one with us," said one reporter. "Anybody who has covered him knows he doesn't like reporters. That makes it tense."
Reporters who hold that view are, consequently, skeptical about Carter's pledge to maintain unprecedented openness in his administration.
"An open administration flows down from the guy at the top," said a reporter who has covered four presidents. "Ford got along fine with the press, and that meant that a reporter could talk to the people under him very easily. But Carter . . ."
The President-elect's press staff, for its part, firmly holds to its commitment to maintain frank and open relations with Washington reporters and, through them, with the American people.
But the Carter press aides harbor no illusions that relations between press and President will be particularly corial. "We hope for a sound working relationship," says Walt Wurfel, who will serve as a deputy to Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell. "But we're not expecting a honeymoon. We're not going to be in love with each other."
Powell has called for "a new beginning" after the sometimes heated relationship he had with the press during Carter's long campaign.But he makes it clear that he will not be averse to slugging it out with reporters in the White House.
"I don't feel any obligation to be a punching bag for the press," he said in an interview last year. "I don't mind letting people take out their frustrations on me, as long as they let me take mine out on them."
Carter himself has not shirked from criticizing the media. Reporters say he complained several times during the campaign that news stories were "crummy" or "irresponsible." In the famous Playboy magazine interview, Carter stated that the White House regulars - who consider themselves at the top of their profession - were superficial.
"The national news media have absolutely no interest in issues at all," Carter said.
That kind of talk has contributed to a distrust among the reporters of Carter and his press staff.
Powell, for instance, has emphasized that he will be fair in dealing with reporters, avoiding favoritism of one correspondent or another.
But last week some of the regulars were already claiming that Jack Nelson, of the Los Angeles Times, had been handed private scoops by Powell as a reward for favorable stories.
Nelson scoffs at the idea, saying, "Jody didn't give a thing to me."
The White House reporters, in general, love to talk about their work, and several answered at great length last week when asked about their relations with the incoming administration. But none wanted to talk on the record, partly out of fear of alienating the Carter staff and partly because they feel a professional obligation to remain neutral - in public, at least - on political figures.
But the press corps did go on the record, in a way, in a post-election seminar at the Washington Press Club in which veterans of Carter campaign coverage told their colleagues what to expect.
The message - delivered by Helen Dewar, of The Washington Post, Albert R. Hunt, of the Wall Street Journal, and Sam Donaldson, of ABC News - was that covering the Carterites would be a rough and frequently contentious task.
"Some Presidents see the press as a necessary element of the system," Donaldson said at the seminar. "Some see us as enemies, some as friends. Carter sees us simply as a problem."
Whether or not that is so, it seems clear that Carter considers the press important. At the first meeting of his Cabinet designees last month on St. Simons Island, Ga., Carter told his appointees that they would have carte blanche in appointing subordinates except in two areas: Congressional liaison and press relations.
Congressional liaison personnel were to be approved by Carter's liaison chief, Frank Moore, before they were appointed. Agency press officers were to be chosen from a list of candidates prepared by Powell; persons not on the list would have to be interviewed by Powell before they could be hired.
The list of potential press officers is said to contain two dozen names, most of them Washington journalists. Tom Ross, former chief of the Chicago Sun-Times' Washington bureau, is reportedly listed, as are New York Times reporter Leslie Gelban and Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun.
Ross has been reported to be in line for the chief press relations post in the Defense Department. Gelb recently was named to and will accept a subcabinet job in the State Department that does not involve press relations. Trewhitt says he was offered the top public information position in the State Department but turned down.
One veteran public relations man who was interviewed for the press relations job in a Cabinet department said Powell stressed the need for honest, open dealings with the press. "But he also kept talking about 'close contact' between him and me. I felt I was watching the creation of Jody's own little cabinet," the man said.
Some observers see this as an attempt by Powell to orchestrate - as did Herb Klein, director of communications in the Nixon White House - a government-wide propaganda apparatus designed to sing the administration's praises.
But others see nothing more sinister than minor empire building on Powell's part. The press secretary has already asserted dominion over the White House speechwriters, photographers, and research staff, all of which were independent of the press office in previous administrations. The Cabinet information network would be a natural extension of his authority.
Some of the White House regulars are concerned that Powell's presumed breadth of authority will impair their ability to get information from him.
"What's the use of having a press secretary who knows everything if we never get to see him?" a reporter asked. "The open President and the honest press secretary are going to be back in some office writing a speech while we have to squeeze tidbits out of (deputy press secretary Rex) Granum, who won't know anything."
Both the press and the President-elect's staff recognize that hostility between them call limit and color the information the public receives about its government. Both sides have been thinking about ways to reduce tension in the White House press office.
Powell has talked about eliminating the daily White House press briefings, noting that they frequently concern trivial matters and bring out the combative instincts of reporters and press secretaries.
Some reporters are discussing that perennial topic, the presidential press conference, in the hope of reducing the formality and posturing that often characterize the televised sessions.
Ford's press secretary, Ron Nessen, offered some proposals in a valedictory address Friday at the National Press Club.
Nessen said that informal sessions between reporters and the President with no cameras present might prove to be the best means of passing information to the press.
But it seems doubtful that any significant changes will be made in the way White House news is disseminated. Although many, perhaps most, of the regulars agree with Powell about the daily briefing, a few reporters - mainly network radio correspondents - say that are absolutely dependent on the briefings. As long as the radio reporters demand a briefing, the others will feel it necessary to attend as well.
As a result, veterans on both sides of the White House-press corps relationship are generally reconciled to a rugged relationship between the new President and the press.
That was the word Powell received last week when he summoned Klein, the longtime Nixon aide and now a Metromedia executive, to a private conference at Blair House.
Klein, lacking prosperous but tired, emerged from the meeting and ran directly into a group of reporters.
"Hey, Herb, Whatja talk about?" the reporters shouted. "What's Jody going to do to us?"
Klein took a long, almost whimsical look across the street at the White House. "I told him to get a good night's sleep before the inauguration," Klein said, "because he's going to have a very, very hard four years."