Secretary of State James A. Baker III sent Israel a signal Wednesday, but it was White House telephone operators who got the message.
The White House switchboard was flooded with 6,000 to 8,000 calls Wednesday night and was "swamped" yesterday morning after Baker, in congressional testimony about the stalled peace process in the Middle East, advertised the main White House telephone number. When Israeli leaders become serious about peace, Baker said in a comment widely reported by the television networks, "the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414."
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Baker's comment triggered so many calls that "the switchboard was finally blocked to the point that it just couldn't handle any more, and they had to put on an automatic thank-you tape."
Fitzwater said the switchboard normally receives 100 to 200 calls during that period and described Wednesday night's volume as "fairly incredible." He added that callers "were all over the issue on all sides."
Baker's choice of the White House phone number, rather than the State Department's, "means the White House operators can expect a big Christmas present this year by the State Department," Fitzwater said.
But the secretary didn't wait for Christmas. Yesterday he sent flowers to the White House operators.