The head of the National Press Club speakers committee resigned Friday, charging that the club agreed to let the Arab League have two speakers address its membership in return for putting on a $40,000 "Arab Night" gala at the club.
Richard J. Maloy, Washington bureau chief for Thomson Newspapers, said he learned about the connection between the speakers and the Arab night event after he tried to cancel next Tuesday's luncheon at which Arab League representative Dr. Clovis Maksoud is scheduled to speak.
Maloy said he had wanted to cancel the luncheon because only 61 tickets for the event had been sold as of last week. It is standard club procedure for luncheons to be canceled if there is a small response, he said .
Maloy said in his letter of resignation that the Arab officials then "threatened to pull out of (this) lavish Arab Night party . . . unless the luncheon was held." An Arab League spokeswoman confirmed this yesterday.
The Press Club's board of governors and its president, Drew Von Bergen of United Press International, quickly overruled Maloy's decision to cancel the luncheon.
Maloy said he also received a phone call from former Sen. James Abourezk, one of the Arab Night organizers. Abourezk told him, he said, that "the league had been given a guarantee by the press club that if they agreed to underwrite . . . the party, they could in turn use the press club to make two 'political statements."
"It pains me," Maloy said in his resignation letter, "to find the press club crawling to the Arabs, or any other special interest, and I cannot as a responsible and ethical journalist be associated in any way with such conduct."
Seth Payne, chairman of the club's board of governors, defended the decision and said "there was no guarantee" that an Arab spokesman could speak at both a luncheon and a "newsmakers breakfast" in return for organizing the Arab Night.
"You don't buy yourself into the Press Club," Payne said. He added that it is not unusual for the Press Club to invite their lunchelon and breakfast speakers form the foreign country being highlighted at one of these international evenings.
As it now stands, Dr. Clovis Maksoud, the U.S. representative for the Arab League, will speak at the Tuesday luncheon.And Sheik Ali Sabah, oil minister of Kuwait, will speak at breakfast on Wednesday, the date of the Arab Night, but the speech will be beamed in by satellite.
The Press Club's luncheons have served as a prestigious forum for humdreds of U.S. officials and international dignitaries. In recent years, its speakers have included President Carter, Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.
Abourezk said yesterday that the Arab League members were concerned about the cancellation of the luncheon because they had already spent $20,000 more for the evening Gala.
They hired an interior decorator to recreate an Arab marketplace atmosphere in the Press Club dining room. The king of Morocco is chartering a plane and sending over his four private chefs to prepare the food. And they are flying over cloth, copper and silver artifacts from some 20 Arab countries to display at the event.
"The Arabs were coming under pressure from their constituencies back home for spending so much money . . . If the Press Club cancelled the noon luncheon, we wouldn't have anything to show for it," Abourezk said.
"But this idea that the Arabs were trying to but the Press Club, I can't believe it. They were walked into this thing. The were asked. They just wanted to put on a good show," Abourezk added.
Press Club President Von Bergen said he and the others decided to reinstate the luncheon even after after Maloy had cancelled it because not just 61 tickets were sold, but 161. The additional 100 tickets were brought by Arab League members.
Von Bergen said there was no truth to Maloy's charge that the Arabs had bought these tickets just so the luncheon could go forward. "At the outset (of the planning) the Arabs had asked for these tickets," Von Bergen said. He said it is common for groups involved with the speaker at a luncheon to buy up a block of tickets.
"There was no doubt we were putting on three events that involved the Arab League. But there was no quid pro quo to it," Von Bergen said.
From the time it was announced the Arab Night affair began stirring controversy within the Press Club. Jewish and conservative journalists began "raising hell" about it, Abourezk said.
There was some dispute over whether the Press Club should specifically state that Iran is not a member of the Arab League in their announcements about the affair. Then there was the hoopla over whether the Palestinian Liberation Organization's flag would be displayed at the event, since the PLO is a member of the Arab League. It will not.
As a result of the controversy, the number of tickets sold for the luncheon has now jumped from 161 to 230. The Arab Night affair is sold out.
Said Maloy "I guess I have become unpopular with the organization I have criticized. In my view, the only way (the Press Club) can salvage its integrity would be to cancel their "Arab Night" party along with the luncheon and breakfast speeches."