An elephant the White House will never forget

There were a number of problems with Jayathu, seemingly insurmountable at times. The White House wanted a weaned elephant. Jayathu - the female baby elephant that Sri Lanka's president is presenting to Ronald Reagan today - was at first less-than-acceptable to the Americans.

The problem was converting her formula. She is just 18 months old, but she already weighs 285 pounds. The Sri Lankans feed her with British brand-name formula, which the Americans said they could not convert.

So, the White House said, a weaned elephant would be a far better gift.

But a weaned elephant, retorted the Sri Lankans, would have to be three years old. A special plane would be needed for transport, which the island's treasury couldn't afford. Jayathu, conversely, could fit inside a small crate aboard a jumbo jet.

''We were receiving, minimally, two phone calls a day from the American Embassy,'' one bemused Sri Lankan official said. ''The Americans were beside themselves trying to work out the formula. Can you imagine,'' he muttered, ''this involved both the White House and the Department of State?''

But Junius Richard Jayewardene, President of Sri Lanka, finally prevailed. Over the weekend Jayathu - and several crates of her special formula - were flown to Washington to await the Sri Lankan leader's first state visit to the United States.

In what is billed largely as an image-building exercise, President Jayewardene is formally presenting Jayathu to Mr. Reagan at a ceremony on the White House lawn.

Not only is the elephant the symbol of the G.O.P., it's also the symbol of President Jayewardene's Party, the United National Party. And Jayathu means, ''Be thou victorious,'' a rather nice touch for two of the world's septuagenarian leaders who, according to shared wisdom, are bound to get on quite well.

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