It could be a punster's holiday -- political pits, fuzzy details and whatnot -- but it is better as a saga of the exploding Georgia peach and the president's lady.
It may be better still as another glimpse of the wondrous ways of the regulatory system and how it rocks and rolls to the tune of the elected and the electors.
When a federal fruit inspector cut open a peach last spring and found to his dismay a gelatinous blob that never quite matured into a fullblown pit, bells rang in a political early warning system that reaches all the way to the White House.
Rosalynn Carter got involved. President Carter got involved. Stuart Eizenstat, his chief domestic adviser, got involved. Two U.S. senators and an assistant secretary of agriculture were involved.
A federal judge in Columbus, Ga., got them all off the sticky hook by going to bat for hundreds of peach growers in Georgia and South Carolina, ordering Uncle Sam's graders to put away their paring knives.
Now, the story of the exploding peach:
Last spring, as the early fruit of June Gold variety peach came to ripeness, federal and state fruit graders were ready.
Using standards adopted by the growers to assure uniformity in the marketplace, the graders determine whether a peach will be a Grade A or a Grade B or a substandard. The higher the grade, the better the price.
But early varieties of Clingstone peaches often have a problem. Because of weather, genetics and other factors, their pits sometimes never fully develop. They split or they remain blobs.
Until this year, the graders who work under supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture judged the fruit solely from the outside. A split skin meant it could not be a Grade A June Gold peach. A split pit was not seen.
Then the policy changed. Apparently spurred by a complaint last year from a major supermarket chain, the inspectors began random checks of the insides of the peaches. Grades plummeted on a $10 million early crop.
Growers in South Carolina and Georgia went into shock. No one denied that the June Gold's pits were not reaching maturity. But growers contended the Agriculture Department had unfairly changed the grading rules at the worst of all times -- the harvest season.
They complained to Sens. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). The senators arranged a meeting with Carol Tucker Foreman, the assistant secretary of agriculture who oversees fruit and vegetable inspection.
Foreman stuck to her guns: If a peach pit was a blob of goo and if it bothered the buyer who thought he was buying something else, then the fruit couldn't be a Grade A, no matter what it looked like on the outside.
"Hell," Talmadge was quoted by one of his assistants, "nobody eats the peach pit, so what difference does it make? People in Georgia would laugh about this."
Somewhere else along the line, Mrs. Carter, well-known to Georgia peach growers, was alerted to the long knives of the USDA. That would not be unusual -- her role as a presidential adviser is well known and she is, of course, from the Peach State.
As reconstructed by Faith Collins, one of Mrs. Carter's press aides, it went this way: The First Lady was contacted (she didn't know by whom). The First Lady contacted the president. The president contacted his staff. His staff contacted USDA'S Foreman.
The call, as Foreman remembered it, came from Eizenstat. "Inquisitive" was the way she described his approach. Foreman said he professed not to know much about exploding peach pits, but was aware that growers were in a panic and money was being lost.
That's how the system sometimes works on matters of regulatory upheaval, although few of them may reach Mrs. Carter's personal attention. A complaint is made to a friend, questions are asked and problems are solved.
Unhappily for the peach growers, however, that wasn't really good enough. They couldn't wait for friends and regulators to resolve their problem.
"We felt we did have to go through channels," said Robert Dickie Jr. of Musella, Ga., head of the Peach Industry Committee of Georgia. "But the peach season would be over by then if we did that, so we went to court."
The result was a federal court order restraining USDA inspectors from cutting into any more peaches during the remainder of the 1979 season. Foreman, her boss, Secretary Bob Bergland, and everyone else was off the hook.
"We feel the USDA has the power to make the changes, but we also feel they changed without giving us adequate notice -- we were already shipping peaches when they began the new approach," Dickie said.
Dickie said most growers in the southeast are reconciled to the idea that grading changes may be in order. But he said, they want it done in the usual way, through public hearings. USDA apparently is ready to follow that route before the 1980 June Golds form on the branches.
Did Dickie contact Mrs. Carter?
"No sir," he said. "I don't know if she was even aware of our problem."