Beset with Watergate a despondent Richard Nixon sulked in his family quarters, unwilling to show up for his last White House Christmas party for the press. We journalists, and our wives, waited and waited. Finally, Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia arrived, looking less than happy. It was a sad party -but one that truly reflected the president and the fix he was in.
But President Clinton didn't let impeachment get in the way of his Christmas partying. A national TV audience saw Democratic members of the House whoop it up for Mr. Clinton at a pep rally following the impeachment vote. And then, that night, the president and Mrs. Clinton appeared to be having a very good time as they schmoozed with nearly 500 donors and friends.
Then, two nights later, the president put on a "party for the press," as the invitation read. For years, since the days of Lyndon Johnson, I have been attending such parties.
In the 1960s and '70s these evening affairs were small. But in recent years the parties have grown bigger and bigger; certainly hundreds have been on hand. But this last bash of Clinton's can only be described as a mob. A marine who was acting as a guide that night told us there were 4,500 at the function. Some newspapers put the attendance at 6,000. For my wife and me it was, simply, a mess.
We waited in line for over a half hour to get inside the outside gates. Then we waited for another 40 minutes inside the White House so that we could wait in another line before we could be seated inside the big tent on the South Lawn where the president was to greet us. So we waited outside that tent, up near the front of a huge crowd, for nearly an hour. And when we were then told it would be another half hour before we could get in -well, we just gave up and went home. Mercifully the cold wave that was coming in had held off for a few hours - or we would have frozen.
A young reporter friend of mine, who had stuck it out and finally was admitted to the tent, has given me this report: "It was a madhouse inside the tent. We had to wait in long, long lines just to get a little punch. And the president, who was supposed to arrive in 15 minutes, kept us waiting for nearly an hour. Then he made a short, perfunctory welcoming speech, shook hands with a few people in the crowd, and left."
Mrs. Clinton didn't attend. The previous year she and the president had stood in a receiving line and shaken hands with all of their guests. Indeed, presidents and their wives have been doing precisely that for all the years that I've been attending these parties. Except for President Nixon when he hated us so for all those nasty -but true -things we were digging up about him.
In past years, too, there has always been food - lots of luscious food - for the press. But not this year. In fact, I heard this sardonic comment several times: "He's getting even with us."
I don't know whether it was really a press party, although there are thousands of reporters in Washington who could have made up the guest list. "Who are they?" my wife kept asking. We usually see so many of our old friends at these gatherings. That would be part of the fun. But this time we only saw a handful of those we knew.
One White House reporter has told me that the President and Mrs. Clinton had mandated that the party be enlarged so that it would be clear to all that it would be impossible for them to shake hands with all of us as they had in the past. He said they didn't want to be that friendly with us this year. Could be.
Mark Twain attended a reception at the White House on the eve of president Andrew Johnson's impeachment and later wrote: "I never saw a man who seemed as friendless and forsaken."
I can't give you an up-close report on how the president looked. But my friend who got into the party said Clinton "looked good." He said he was "buoyant" and "sounded confident, as if nothing bad was going on."
It's surreal. What else can you call it?