When Neale V. Chaney showed up at the White House early one morning three weeks ago, among the first things he noticed were the doughnuts and coffee on a table. For a moment, he feared that was all there was going to be to the breakfast he had been promised.
"I had heard that White House breakfasts were skimpy," Chaney recalled recently. "But they ended up serving us scrambled eggs and bacon."
They are trying to serve scrambled eggs and bacon more often these days in the White House, where the decline in President Carter's popularity has set in motion a political fence-mending operation, beginning with Democratic Party officials like Chaney.
Chaney, the Democratic state chairman in Washington, is an experienced and savvy political professional. And, like many of his fellow state chairmen, he has felt ignored, and at times abused, throughout the first 15 months or so of dealing with the Carter White House.
"It's been a painful thing for the party," he said.
To ease the pain and begin to repair the damage, White House officials invited every Democratic state party chairman in the country to a series of breakfasts in the White House mess.
These are the same people who a senior White House official referred to collectively last year as "a bunch of a - who aren't interested in anything except patronage. We don't need them."
At the first breakfast, held three weeks ago, Chaney and eight other chairmen, each of whom could bring a guest, heard Office of Management and Budget Director James T. McIntyre Jr. discuss the federal budget. They were able to put questions, and complaints, to press secretary Jody Powell and political adviser Hamilton Jordan. They heard from Anne Wexler, the new public liaison chief in the White House, and Simon Lazarus of the domestic policy staff, who talked about civil service reform.
Finally, they met the president, who asked for their help and posed for a picture with each.
The White House breakfasts for state chairmen continued every week, with the last one held last Thursday, coinciding with a meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. At its two-day session here, the committee passed a resolution thanking Carter for arranging the breakfasts.
The breakfasts were the brainchild of Tim Kraft, recently promoted to the White House senior staff and assigned House senior staff and assigned the task of reviving the more traditional political operations of the White House.
Kraft, 37, was a key Carter political operative in the early 1976 primaries and directed the Carter filed operations during the general election campaign. He was rewarded with the job of appointments secretary to the president, a position that placed him constantly at Carter's side but left little time to influence White House political decisions.
But as a result of the White House staff reorganization instituted by Jodan, Kraft was promoted to the senior staff and was given some of the day-to-day duties previously handled by Jordan, specifically political duties. In effect, he is the first full-time political operative in the Carter White House.
In one of his first moves, Kraft hired Joel McCleary, the former Democratic Party treasurer, to be his deputy. He has also begun consulting with a variety of experienced party professionals about the president's political problems.
By themselves, the breakfasts for the state chairmen are no big deal. But in a White House that for more than a year has seemed aloof, if not antagonistic, toward such symbols of traditional party politics as the state chairmen, they represented something of a breakthrough.
"There was a slow realization that dawned on several of us that we were not using the full political resources of the administration," Kraft said. "One of them is the White House mess [where the breakfasts have been held]. We take it for granted, but for someone else, it's an event."
Kraft would probably get little argument from the state chairmen about the length of time it took for some of these things to "dawn" on the president and his staff. Both Chancy and another state chairman who attended the first breakfast, Michael Bleicher of Wisconsin, diagnose some of Carter's political problems in the same terms - the fact that the president was elected as and sought to remain an "outsider."
"It was a real indication that they are beginning to understand Washington politics," Bleicher said. "He [Carter] came in as an outsider, not through the party structure. After some-on-the-job training, the president is becoming an effective politician."
Carter admitted as much about his "outsider" status in a speech late last year to the Democratic National Committee. He promised to pay closer attention to party matters. But it took his continued slide in the polls, this spring's soul-searching administration meeting at Camp David and the White House staff reorganization for anything to be done about it.
Not surprisingly, the state chairmen have used the White House breakfasts to vent some of their pent-up complaints about lack of consultation on appointments and other political matters. But Kraft sees this as healthy.
"I think it was a plus just for them to be there in the mess jeveling a bitch at members of the White House senior staff," he said.
Bleicher, who called the breakfast "a smooth political operation," and Chaney are inclined to agree although they retain some skepticism.
"I gathered [from the White House visit] that they are interested in the Democratic Party organization," said Chaney, who gives much of the credit to the influence of John White, the new DNC chairman.