The wooden gate was swung shut outside the house that is recessed deeply into the lot on R Street, so no one could tell from the roadway that a meeting of important people was in progress inside.
Back at the White House, reporters had gathered in the press room, because they had been told Jody Powell would be coming at noon to tell them what was happening with the president.
But Powell would not be coming; he was in hiding in that fashionable Georgetown house, which belongs to Jimmy Carter's polister, Patrick Caddell. And with him were Hamilton Jordan, Gerald Rafshoon, Stuari Eizenstat and Caddell.
They were meeting, at midday last Thursday because they were trying to figure out what their president was up to. They were in hiding, they now say, because they just did not know what to tell their White House colleagues or the press. So they just could not be asked.
The thoughts and actions of the president and his senior staff in those initial days that followed Carter's abrupt decision to cancel his nationally televised July 5 energy speech deserve close study. For they fueled the crisis-of-leadership concerns that had promted the original decision to give the energy speech, and that prompted the leadership marathon on the mountaintop that followed.
The country, or at least that portion of it within the first Washington taxi zone, was stunned by the abrupt cancellation of the speech and was wondering what was wrong - had the president undergone a serious change of health or merely a sudden change of heart?
And at a time when a president's advisers could have been helpful to their leader by putting out an explanation, or even words of assurance, Jimmy Carter's staff put out no assurances and put themselves into hiding instead.
The president and his staff succeeded in getting the attention of the public. But they did not go about getting it very well. Now there is concern, even within the Carter White House, that the president may have riveted attention and raised expectations to levels higher than he can fulfil with a speech or with the rather limited range of options of action before him.
And there is concern, even within the White House, over whether he will be able to dispel the concerns of leadership and competence that had existed for a long time and were fueled anew last week, when this fascinating and bizarre exercise in the conduct of the presidency began.
Jody Powell was not at home when President Carter called on the Fourth of July - he was out trying to find a watermelon, which is the way he likes to celebrate the holiday. So he missed the conference call in which Carter told Vice President Mondale and sides Jordan and Rafshoon that he had decided not to give his energy speech, scheduled for the next day.
Carter did not detail his reasons, senior White House sources say. He just said it would be wrong to give a speech devoted only to energy. And he asked those on the line, plus Powell, Caddell, and Elizensiat, to come to Camp David the next afternoon.
And he asked his aides not to say anything about what was going on.
So the staff took the President literally. They did not tell him that some assurance was needed because the nation would be thrown into a mild panic (it was) and that the dollar would drop sharply (it did). Instead they avoided their offices and caucused in the home of Caddell. (Why Caddell's? "It was out of the way," one participant explained," - and the house has a swimming pool.")
"We had some idea of where the president might be headed," says one of the senior Carter officials. "But we didn't know for sure. There was nothing we could say. And so basically we decided to stay out of the way of the reporters."
The president's top advisers left Caddell's house in the afternoon and helicoptered with Mondale to Camp David. There they met with the president and what emerged was the on-going affair that has been officially billed as a domestic policy summit, but has at times come closer to a domestic policy Esalen, with establishmentarians from all walks of life coming to Big Sir and, in his presence, letting it all hang out.
Those who were in hiding at the Caddell house say that what is happening at Camp David was pretty much what Carter had in mind initially, on the day he called and canceled his speech.
But because of the unusual way the affair was handled. It is indeed possible that the idea for holding a domestic summit was in part a rationale that was worked out at the Caddell house caucus and later at Camp David, as a way of creating a broad framework that would give support, strength and shape to the abrupt cancellation of the speech.
With the senior staff alternately in hiding and incommunicado, reporters were left to talk to mid-level aides who - apparently far too often - did not know what was going on but who were putting out explanations nevertheless.
The president has explained to his invited counselors, in days since, that he canceled the energy speech because he was concerned about a "malaise" in which he perceives the nation is now mired, and his own feeling that he must pay more attention to his role as a leader of the country and less attention to fine-tuning machinery as a head of the government These, he feels, go to the heart of the concerns that envelop the country - concerns far more extensive than the lengthening gas lines and the shrinking dollar. And that explanation is compelling and comprehensible enough to have been made public in the beginning.
"There is a high air of expectation," said one senior Carter assistant. "And that is a problem that should be addressed in his (upcoming) speech. It is dangerous to raise expectations at a time like this - when there is no easy solution, and what is needed most is sacrifice."
Carter's alternatives for dealing with the energy crisis are few and politically unappetizing. His experts have recommended that he decontrol gasoline prices - and let the high prices of the market place drive the nation into conservation, poor folks first. But that is politically unacceptable, mostly to moderate and liberal Demoncrats, and Carter is now said to have ruled that out. He can move to scrap or drastically modify the present allocation system run by the Energy Department, but the results that would bring are far from certain.
Organizationally, he is expected to cut gently into his well-known stubborn streak and take one more step toward creating the chief of staff he has said all along he would never have. Jordan, who has been his defacto chief for some time, will become a bit more facto.
But all of this would have been fine for a review after six months in the presidency, or even after one year, or at midterm, or at Camp David in April of 1978 - when it was, in fact, last done.
But now, with Carter's standing in the polls lower than Nixon's lowest and with a reelection campaign - if there is to be one - just a few months away, it all seems a little familiar but a little late.
When Jimmy Carter comes down from the mountaintop, he will come back to a harsh reality - a reality where members of Congress no longer come racing to his side at his beck and call and, in fact, may show no greater inclination toward voting with his side than they were before.
The initial tack of Carter and his staff - concellation without explanation, staff in hiding - fanned renewed concerns of leadership and competence. And over at the White House now, those who were left down in the valley, still harbor concerns and doubts about the way it has all been done. "I don't know why it was handled the way it was in the beginning," said one mid-level White House official. "I guess it won't matter if what he says at the end proves to be truly dramatic." He paused, and then added in a lower voice: "but I just don't know that he's going to do that."
EPILOGUE: In those first days of the Camp David marathon, as concerns about the physical and psychological health of the president spread throughout the land (at times courtesy of television network newspeople), they were duly noted up in the bucolic lodges on the mountain. "The president has been amused by all the speculation," one of Carter's highest echelon said on the phone from Camp David several days ago. "And frankly, I've just enjoyed the hell out of the last couple of days."
But there is nothing really amusing about the concerns that were raised. For they were concerns not just for the health of the nation. They were the very sort of concerns that Carter, in his own way, has himself been raising in his week of retreat.