President Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, are saying farewell. The reception line moves slowly, like an ice-clogged stream, down the glittering Grand Hall, and the guests' names are finally whispered to the presidential couple by the big Marine Corps captain who stands at their left.
It is an emotional affair in some respects with dramatic juxtapositions. In the Blue room towers a Christmas tree decorated in pastelles; on the White House grounds outside rises the great national Christmas tree which will be darkened this year as it was last year for the still-imprisoned hostages.
In front of the Stately White House on Pennsylvania Avenue the raw pine planks are taking shape as an viewing stand for the inauguration parade on Jan. 20. On the other end of the avenue, carpenters are at work, too, putting up the stand on which the new President will be administered the oath of office by the Chief Justice of the United States.
The smart rap of the inaugural hammer comes inside the White House as the old regime still operates.
The reception taking place now and others like it are not technically farewell receptions; there are Christmas parties for Congress, foreign diplomats , the White House staff, and other groups every year. But every four or eight years comes a reception of a more poignant kind, a time for saying goodbye as well as hello.
The 1,200 guests now have moved about the lower rooms of the venerable mansion, awed as always by the overpowering sense of history: the paintings of First Ladies Mamie and BEss, of Jackie and Lyndon's Ladybird; pictures of forgotten presidents ("Who is that?" -- "Why, er, Chester A. Arthur."), or that tremendous figure, Grover Cleveland, being married to a slender young Frances Folsom in 1886, right here in the Blue room.
In the glass cases along lower walls is some of the china that George and Martha Washington ate from, and here is a celery glass used by John and Abigail Adams.
Some of those who have passed through the reception line circle back and watch the outgoing presidential couple behind palms. They are of average height , or a little below; the man is physically not a commanding figure. He came from Plains, Ga., to win the governorship and then manipulated the strange new primary selection system that operates (critics charge) something like a pinball machine and sends a silver ball bouncing through improbable traps and obstcles. He hit the jackpot. He dealt with Brezhnev and Deng Xiaoping; he instituted huma rights; he emphasized conservation; he tried to rescue the hostages, cut armaments, reduce inflation -- largely failed, and was defeated in an election in which about half the people voted.
Jimmy Carter's handshake is direct and firm; his greeting simple and smiling; many in the receiving line would like to stop and give some special word but the Marine captain shoes them along gently. Presidents have heavy burdens -- shaking hands with 1,200 people is one. Normally their popularity peaks after election, and slides off after that, often reviving somewhat (like Harry Truman's) befor the next election. The revival didn't save Jimmy Carter.
But being ex-president can be fun; America loves its ex- presidents (Richard Nixon may alter the pattern). This reporter's guess is that a Carter revival lies around the corner.
Is he embittered? There is no sign of it. He seems relaxed, with even a trace of humor. Referring to the recent visit of President-elect Reagan to Blair House, the official home for distinguished visitors across Pennsylvania Avenue, Mr. Carter welcomed guests at a Christmas-farewell White House reception for Cabinet and senior white House staff the other day. "Welcome," he said, "to the Blair House annex!'
The man from Plains said it with a smile.