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Family life vs. public life - the officeholder's dilemma.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1984


THE Washington grapevine has always been ripe with stories of family life gone sour amid the tanglings, trappings, and time constraints of government life.

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Both David R. Gergen, who resigned Jan. 15 as President Reagan's director of communications, and former chief congressional lobbyist Kenneth M. Duberstein, who had resigned Dec. 15, cite the encroachment of job demands on personal and family life as a significant factor in their decision to leave government service. The experiences of their families can serve as a convenient barometer of what is happening to families all across the country whose main breadwinners are in high-pressure, time-consuming executive or political jobs.

''What is happening with families in Washington is merely a reflection of what is happening to them all over this country,'' says Prof. Gerda McCahan of Furman University, a family research expert. Economic pressures and social change are widely redefining relationships and reordering the priorities of family life, she says.

As President Reagan's chief congressional lobbyist, Mr. Duberstein helped forge bipartisan accords on the 1982 tax increase, the 1983 revision of the social security system, the MX missile, and authorization of American troops in Lebanon. Such mega-tasks put predictable strain on the microcosm of family life.

''I used to get home from the White House anywhere from 9:30 to 12 o'clock (at night). Sydney (his wife) can tell you that one of the ways she always knew I was on my way home was the signal line (phone from the White House) started ringing,'' Mr. Duberstein says. He recalls a visit with his wife's parents. ''We pulled up to her folks' house in Philadelphia. . . . Her mother came out of the door laughing because the White House had already called three times with messages.''

Sydney Duberstein has her reminiscences, too: ''We'd be alone even on social occasions. We would stand together for a few minutes during the cocktail hour. We would have dinner at separate tables. We'd be driven back to the White House in a White House car, get in separate cars, and drive home.''

Unlike many Washington political couples, the Dubersteins knew what they were in for before they got married. They had no illusions about the ''glamour'' of working in the White House, and they knew, in Mrs. Duberstein's words, ''that it wouldn't be a career forever.''

She holds a full-time job in the General Services Administration and says she never felt shunted aside by the pace of her husband's high-powered position. But she observes that ''obviously his job was more important than mine, and his schedules did dictate a lot of things.''

The Dubersteins tried to see his daughter, Jennifer, ''late Saturday afternoons through Sunday as many weekends as possible.'' He kept a drawer of crayons and coloring books in his White House office to entertain her when she visited him at work on Sunday afternoons.

Mr. Duberstein now has a lobbying job with the firm of Timmons & Co., and his wife says she feels a vast difference already: ''We can talk in full sentences now without the phone ringing.''

David Gergen, who is now a fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University, rules out a husband-wife interview.