DEAR BEVERLY "Wife of" isn't certain if the after-dinner toast is more popular in Washington than in other power centers. But I do liken it to that gaudy plant, the large-flowered purple azalea, so well established inside the Beltway that it would take an Act of God to uproot.
Sophisticates, like Popsie Tribble and Lionel Portant, will never admit they enjoy sitting through toasts. Some Georgetown types (not Popsie) even ban toasts from their dinner tables. But believe me, Beverly, if you're in the business of giving dinner parties at an embassy, it would be diplomatic suicide to take such a frivolous attitude. Barton Spitte, the dusty diplomat, warned Mr. Ambassador when he first arrived.
"Always remember that the most senior American official at your party expects to be toasted. But do him the courtesy of warning his office about the toast beforehand. He will feel obliged to respond and won't want to be embarrassed at the crucial moment, not knowing at which embassy he is being entertained."
Unlike Popsie Tribble and Lionel Portant, I often long for the moment when the host taps the glass with the side of the knife so "wife of" can sit back and relax while someone else chats up the Powerful Jobs.
Beverly, I use the term after-dinner toast loosely because occasionally it comes before the soup, which means we're in for an evening of Serial Toasting. Men jump up and down during the entree, main course, salad and dessert paying tribute. Melvin Thistle Jr. from State thinks Serial Toasting is best because you don't have to talk to people beside you and the company will be fed up with the whole business by coffee -- which means an early night, something all Powertown wants.
Serial Toasting is not the only Washington tradition. There is also the Overdone Toast -- unfortunately, an embassy specialty. A Mr. Ambassador describes his guest of honor in such flowery terms -- "this heroic and wise statesman," etc. -- that the guests begin to wonder if they're drinking to the memory of Abraham Lincoln instead of a two-term congressman from a forgotten state.
The Underdone Toast occurs when the toaster has never met the person he's talking about. Perhaps the toaster or toastee has been substituted at the last minute. The toaster whets the interest of the company with phrases like "I'm told that our honored guest knows more about the Law of the Sea than anyone in this room." Or, even worse for the toastee, the toaster says, "People tell me he's famous for his wit, so I'm looking forward to hearing it for the first time tonight." The Underdone Toast always results in the Mumbled Response.
Then there's the Bad Taste Toast. The person who does this sort of thing is already known to deliver ambiguously worded toasts so the host never invites him to say a few words. But he will stand up unasked and proceed to tell a story about the time the toastee fell asleep during a meeting with the secretary of state or with the chairman of the most important tool and dye company in the world. "I only wish I had a video tape," the Bad Taste Toaster will chuckle. The Bad Taste Toaster will always mention that he used to see a great deal of the toastee in the early days, "when he was married to Gwen." This does not endear the toaster to the toastee's second wife.
The Nervous Toaster reads out compliments from a script provided by a staff assistant. He never lifts his head from the page and is terribly worried that some Famous Name or Powerful Job will be left out of his toast. Fortunately, the staff assistant has provided him with a list of all the important names at the party. At one dinner "wife of" attended, a Nervous Toaster lifted his head and announced, "Please note that I'm mentioning names in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance."
The Insatiable Toaster never uses notes and mentions all 40 people in the room, giving accurate updates on their jobs and families. We learn that Sonny Goldstone's grandmother still does cross-stitching without glasses at the age of 87, and the host's son, who is present, has just made his first million (in finder's fees), having graduated from Harvard only a year before. We give a big hand to the cook who has been specially flown in to show us foreigners and Californians how chicken fried steak really ought to taste. Nobody, not even "wife of," is left out. Mr. Ambassador, who clocks Insatiable Toasters, says the toasting of 40 people adds an extra hour to the party. Those who leave the table during this tour de force will never be asked back. Which is something that can be endured.
The Pedantic Toaster fools us only momentarily with his pithy sayings culled from books entitled "The Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson" or "The Wit and Wisdom of Lyndon Johnson." There will be a sampling from Bartlett's and perhaps recitation of a poem by Rob Frost to end his toast on a spiritual note.
Beverly, this toast business seems to be the last bastion of male privilege. . . . I've never seen "wives of" play much of a role other than to give a pained look as their husbands talk.
The exception is Popsie Tribble. As I told you before, Popsie usually has two or three guests of honor because she never knows which one is going to be the most important one in the news the day of her party. Unfortunately, she forgets to tell Dexter, so she has to jump up and down saluting the negary who might help Dexter get the best job in the White House. Your best friend, Sondra The writer is a novelist whose husband is Canada's ambassador to the United States. This is one in a series of letters home describing Washington customs to a friend.