If the question of how much to concede for the return of the 52 American hostages is perplexing for the nation and its leaders, it is particularly anguishing for the families of the hostages as they watch the international dickering escalate.
Penne Laingen, wife of the highest-ranking diplomatic hostage in Iran, yesterday likened the negotiations to the haggling in a Persian rug bazaar.
"It is very much like rug bargaining. For those of you who have lived in those countries as I have, you know that this is only the first price," she said at her home in Bethesda.
"I believe we must not panic, even though we want that rug very badly. We've waited this long, and we know the dealer wants to sell it. But there's a great deal more riding on this carpet besides 52 lives. We must have the courage to walk out of the dealer's store if necessary. . . ."
"We don't want the fringe, we don't want pieces," she said, referring to reports that the Iranians might release the hostages in stages. "We want the whole beautiful thing, with honor."
She takes this position despite the knowledge that her husband, Bruce L. Laingen, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy, was ill in September, reportedly with dysentery. "His hair has turned white, and is falling out in gobs," she said. "But they caught it in time, and pumped him full of antibiotics . . . . I want him home as fast as possible. But I want it done right."
She said she is convinced that the Iranian parliament's announcement of conditions for release mark, at the very least, "the beginning of the end" of the year-long ordeal.
Louisa Kennedy, spokesman for the group formed by the hostage families, said she feels "more encouraged at this point in time than I have felt in the last 11 months and 28 days of this problem."
But she, too, cautioned against expecting an immediate solution. Regarding the release of the hostages in stages, she said, "I find that unacceptable and so do almost all the hostage families."
Of the timing of the current developments, just before the election, Kennedy said the Iranian government" could quite naturally be seen to be trying to manipulate the U.S. elections . . . . I think now that Iran has foisted this crisis on us, they are going to find every way they can to put the pressure on in ways that this pressure can be of benefit to them."
She praised all three candidates for not making the hostage situation a campaign issue, although she added that they "have gone off the track from time to time."
Regarding charges that President Carter has been playing politics with the issue, she said: "I have been present at the scene at the State Department since Day One of this unfolding crisis and I'm sure that every effort that could possibly be made . . . . has been made."
Ernest Cooke of Memphis expressed similarly guarded sentiments about the return of his hostage son, Donald, a vice consul.
"I'm hoping they [the United States and Iran] have a deal. That would be the best for Donald," Cooke said.
But he added: "I am dead set against the president capitulating totally, if a deal has not been made . . . . If it comes down to a choice of paying some kind of ransom and running the risk of the rest of our embassies and consulates around the world being subjected to this same kind of takeover in the future, then President Carter should not pay the ransom."
Cooke said he would not consider it a ransom for the United States merely to unfreeze Iranian assets, or to resume its former economic relationship with Iran -- two of the conditions the Iranians have laid down. The problems could arise in other terms proposed, which involve the return of the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's wealth and canceling legal claims against Iran.
Others were less restrained.
"I sympathize with the president, I really do. But that is my son over there," said Teresa Gallegos, mother of hostage Marine Cpl. William A. Callegos of Pueblo, Colo. "I don't care how he gets them out, as long as he does it."
Yesterday morning, for the first time in a long time, she said, "we're happy again, praying and hoping this time it will all be resolved."
She said that she believes the president will find a way to salvage both the hostage and the nation's honor and security.
For most of the families, word that the Iranian parliament had approved a list of conditions for the hostages' release came in the early-morning darkness. Some were alerted by telephone calls from journalists, but others stayed up all night listening for the latest news bulletins.
By early morning, almost all had been telephoned by State Department officials who simply informed them that, now that the Iranian parliament had taken some action, the real work of negotiation could begin.
In Bellevue, Neb., Mary Needham, mother of hostage Paul M. Needham, an Air Force captain, heard the news at 3:30 a.m. while watching a 24-hour cable television news telecast. Her husband, Paul G. Needham, wearied by nearly a year of false hopes, had refused to wait up. Yesterday the Needhams refused to give in to optimism over the latest developments in Iran.
"We just have to wait and see," said Needham. "All I know is that the people should be released as soon as possible . . . . Let's just get them home."
In the Seaford, Del., home of Lawrence and Jackie Persinger, parents of Marine Sgt. Gregory A. Persinger, the first word came about 1 to 2 a.m. when a reporter called them for comment. They, too, refused to get carried away.
"Afterwards, everybody went back to sleep," said Mrs. Persinger.
"After a while, you develop a sort of philosophy: what will be, will be," said John W. Limbert Sr. of the District of Columbia, father of John W. Limbert Jr., a political officer in the embassy at the time it was seized. "All we know is what we hope: that my son will be released. The thing we're trying to prevennt is having your hopes raised and dashed. It's been an emotional Yo-Yo.
"You just can't be on the emotional edge all the time and keep your sanity."
Eugene Lauterbach of Dayton, Ohio, father of hostage Steven Lauterbach, an administrative employe, said: "It looks a little more encouraging than before, but -- we've been through this drill before. "We've found that if you got your expectations up it was that much worse when it fell apart. And from where I stand, this could still fall apart again."
Patricia Lee of the Falls Church, wife of hostage Gary Earl Lee, said: "I think reporters get more disappointed when things don't work out than the families do . . . . Last Sunday was the best Sunday I had in a year, because I didn't have any hopes."
"I hate the waiting and the buildups," Mrs. Bruce E. German of Kensington, Md., told a wire service reporter. "I don't want to think about it or talk about it."
Accordingly, most reporters who called her house got a recording of her voice saying: "If you are a reporter, I don't have any comment. Please don't call again."
"I'm prejudiced. I want my sister home," said Mary Jane Enqquist, sister of hostage Kathryn Koob, of Burke, Va. But mixed with her desire for a speedy resolution, she acknowledged the need for patience.
"I guess I've gotten very tired of hearing the hostage and the election talked about in the same breath . . . ," she said. "The whole thing has been wrong from the beginning. The Iranians have to get out of this saving a little face. And so do we."
Martin Graves, 21, son of hostage John E. Graves, said gamely at his home in Reston, Va.: "It's crazy, making guesses. It's a bad thing to do, getting excited. Be patient; be tolerant. That's the way our father raised us. It's called 'being a foreign service brat."