The congressman was calling the While House congressional liaison chief with a matter that was, by any measure, trivial.
It was one of those routine requests, forwarded to the White House some time ago, about a constituent who was about to celebrate a big anniversary. The congressman, a Democrat, has asked that the president send one of those brief, form-letter-type messages of congratulations.
Frank Moore's reply was brief and to the point, according to sources at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Moore didn't see any need to do any favors for the congressman; after all, he had voted against the president's gas rationing plan the other day - one of many Democrats who helped send the plan down to flaming defeat.
"We're learning how to paly this game," Moore is said to have told the congressman.
On Capitol Hill, the story evokes mirth, not anger. They think Carter's way of playing the game is to first wave a stick enticingly in front of members of Congress, then hit them over the head with a carrot.
But there is a more important point to the story. It is that the defeat of gas rationing has galvanized a new, hardline resolve within the Carter White House. The president, stunned by the scope of his defeat in the House, appears willing to alter his relationship with the Democratic Congress for the next two years.
Not only did Carter issue his angriest denunciation of the Democratic Congress the other day, but his advisers say there probably will be more of the same - perhaps right through the 1980 presidential campaign.
"There has been no conscious decision to actually run for reelection by running against Congress," said one of the President's advisers. "But it's gotten to the point that there is pretty widespread agreement here now that the president should take on Congress any time Congress fails to eiter take the leadership role or follow the president's leadrship."
He adds: "This is a word of consequences. And the more we let them know that, the better off we are."
The idea of a Democratic president running against a Democratic Congress is unusual enough to warrant a closer look at just how these harsh times came to be. There is, as is often the case, a mixed bag of blame.
But because it was the gas rationing vote that galvanized these long-existing, but lowe-keyed concerns, it is important to understand why the presidents's plan was defeated so soundly; why the president came to attack Congress so harshly, and how the gas rationing vote of 1979 may affect the campaign of 1980.
"We were caught in a perfect Catch-22. They used to criticize us for not consulting and not compromising. So this time we consult with them. And then we compromise. And then they criticize us for changing our bill."
There is frustration in the voice of the Carter man, and there is justification for it. Carter had presented Congress, at its direction, with a gas rationing plan, for use in crisis only. (Actually, it was the Democratic Congress that had compelled Watergated Richard M. Nixon to do this late in his final day, leaving it to Gerald R. Ford to prepare the plan, which the Democrats then termed inadequate. Enter Carter.)
But there is another side to why the Carter plan came to be defeated. Take the case of Rep. Peter Kostmayer (d-Pa.).
On Monday, May 7, Kostmayer came to Washington prepared to vote for the gas rationing plan. He had told his constituents back home over the weekened that he would be doing just that.
But then he saw a Democratic Study Group staff report showing that senators had forced key changes in the plan in exchange for their votes. The plan once had been based on allocations for each vehicle. Now it was based on historical gas usage within each state, calculated from statistics from a previous base year or years.
That was the philosophy of the change. The bottom line of it, for Kostmayer, was that Pennsylvania's allocations were cut in each successive change, from 49 units to 42 units to 39 units.
A Kostmayer aide called the Energy Department for explanation. What he got was an offical bad-mouthing the changes. It had been a good Energy Department plan, the official said, but the White House had made a mistake in agreeing to the Senate changes.
Next, Kostmayer's office was called by a lobbyist from United Parcel Service. UPS, operators of a fleet of mid-sized trucks, had been opposed to the plan. But the lobbyist was saying UPS had been assured its trucks would get the gas they needed, so UPS was now for the plan.
Next Kostmayer heard that New York City taxicab drivers had dropped their opposition to the plan after-getting similar assurances.(Actually, what White House domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat had done was assure both UPS and the taxicab people that the plan provided for "flexibility" through supplemental allotments.)
The pennsylvania cutbacks. The Energy Department gripes. "They [administration officials] just seemed to be reversing themselves and giving everything away," Kostmayer said.
At 6:10 p.m. - shortly before the vote - Kostmayer took the House floor and said he was voting against the plan. Twenty minutes later, White House lobbyist Terry Straub telephoned to ask how Kostmayer was voting.
It was the First time a Carter official had called to explain what was going on - and Kostmayer and his aide say they were dismayed to hear the Carter man contend that the plan had not changed.
In a gallant last effort, House Speaker Homas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. took the floor. In ringing tones reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan and with a countenance reminiscent of W.C. Fields, the speaker likened a vote against gas rationing to a vote against the military draft just before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. "Today I am shedding a tear for American," he said - and for just a moment, the energy crisis, which had been "the moral equivalent of war," had become the war equivalent of morality.
The house rejected the president's plan by a lopsided vote of 246 to 159, with 106 Democrats voting against their president.
The president and his advisers were enraged when the wire service tickers clattered forth the news of the House vote.
"Congress is just unwilling to show any politifal courage," fumed one Carter assistant. "They've buckled at every opportunity."
Bill Cable, Carter's liaison for the House side and a man widely respected by Carter's congressional friends and enemies alike, was as stunned as the rest of the White House people.
I have a hard time saying why we lost as bad as we did," he says, "I thought we had a chance to win." Cable takes some blame. "We obviously did a poor job of selling it. We couldn't gaet them to face the hard numbers and hard facts."
Up on Capitol Hill, some House members - among them Michigan Democrats William Ford and James Blanchard, who had supported the plan - implored presidential aides to have Carter speak out against the vote. "After all, they had been left high and dry," one Carter aide recalled.
Sixteen blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, Carter and his advisers needed no encouragement.
About 11:30 a.m. the next day, reporters were summoned to the Oval Office. A half-hour later, Carter entered and, glancing at Handwritten notes, launched his attack.
"I was shocked and embarrassed . . . the majority of the House members are unwilling to take the responsibility . . . put their heads in the sand . . . refused to take action . . . local and parochial timidity . . . irresponsible."
Never has Jimmy Carter been tougher in his rhetoric toward Democrats - not even in 1976, in Iowa and New Hampshire and Florida, when he was running against them. And never have Carter's asistants felt better about what they heard. "I wish he'd do it twice a week," said one adviser.
Carter challenged Congress to draft its own plan. And that is what is going on now.
"Clearly, Jimmy Carter, will not be able to campaign by saying everything is great . . . When things go wrong, people tend to place the blame somewhere. But far too often, that blame falls on the president. Even when it is Congress that deserves the blame, it still falls on the president. We have to do something about that."
The speaker is a Carter adviser. He is talking about Himmy Carter running for reelection.
In 1980, there will be people who will sense that there are some things that have gone wrong. There will be the problem of inflation, siphoning dollars our of wallets. And there will be the problem of energy, siphoning comforts out of the standard of living.
Carter men insist that there has been no explicit policy of campaigning against the Congress. But the latest attack - and the comments of Carter aides - suggest that there are times when the president and his advisers are prepared to do just that.
There are a couple of points worth noting if this resolve is to become a full-fledged strategy: What worked for Harry Truman in 1948 will not necessarily work for Jimmy Carter in 1980, and what worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976 will not necessarily work for Jimmy Carter in 1980.
In 1948, Truman could run against a "Do Nothing" Congress and make it stick because he was Democrat and Congress was Republican. Every time Carter lambastes a sizably Democratic Congress, he runs the risk of making his critics' case for them - that he is not enough of a leader to get the job done.
In 1976, Carter won by running as an outsider who could bring new leadership and morality and reform to Washington. Americans are understanding and elestic, but it is doubtful that they are ready to rally behind anyone who tries to tell them there is such a thing as an incumbent outsider.
Also, Carter will have to keep in mind, as he tries to place the blame on Congress, that he ran behind virtually every Democrat member of the House in each congressional districr. So while he may long for the popularity and tranquility of an Eisenhower presidency, Carter must also be aware that he has all the political coattails of an Eisenhower jacket.
Placing blame is a political art form that is founded as much in subtley as it is in fact. Americans could chuckle during Nixon's final days, when the bumper stickers appeared sayings, "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern."
But it is doubtful that Carter will have much sucess if he tries to campaign with a sticker on his limousine bumper that reads, "Don't Blamd Me, I Vored for Carter."
EPILOGUE: In the beginning, Frank Moore must have felt like the Carter team had asked him to be its star javelin catcher, as congressmen blamed him, often unfairly, for every error by every fledgling in the new administration.
But the freeze on petty favors for straying members of Congress was all Moore's doing. It will not be permanent, however, according to the White House official who confirmed the account of the congressman who tried to get a congratultory letter from the president and got a rejection notice instead.
"He was in a category with a number of people who had stuff sitting up here," the aide said. "It was just a way of letting them know. They'll get what they want tomorrow.
"We're not going to start shutting people off permanently - as enemies - on the basis of just one vote." He paused. "Especially not one on which we got beaten so badly."