Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and a mild-mannered lawyer from Grand Rapids, Mich., were talking. ``Well, how're we doing on the African famine?'' asked the President.
``The US is sending an unprecedented 3 million tons of food to help feed the starving this year,'' the lawyer replied.
``If you put it into 50-pound bags and placed the bags end to end, they'd stretch all the way around the world -- twice.''
Mr. Shultz wanted to check the facts. ``Around what part of the world?'' he asked.
``Twice around the equator -- more than 48,000 miles,'' the lawyer replied. The Reagan reaction: a presidential chuckle, and a ``good, good.''
Two points to note here:
It's impressive company for tall, gregarious Michigan lawyer (and former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru) M. Peter McPherson to keep.
By any standards, it's also an impressive response by the United States to the worst drought and famine of the century, way ahead of any other single government donor.
Three million tons works out to about 25 pounds from each individual American.
As the US Thanksgiving season approaches, Americans can look back on a year that saw 450,000 tons of US emergency grain going to Ethiopia alone, and the feeding of about half of all the starving there, despite wide political differences between Ethiopian leader Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam and Mr. Reagan.
The total value of all relief food sent to sub-Saharan Africa in fiscal 1985 was about $1.3 billion, including a massive supplementary appropriation voted by Congress in April this year of $800 million.
In fact, McPherson, now chief of the world's largest government foreign aid agency (the US Agency for International Development, or AID) has emerged in 1985 as ``Mr. Famine'' in the US and to many abroad.
He is widely credited by the UN, by governments, and by private agencies with getting large amounts of food into Ethiopia and other drought stricken African nations.
``You have to hand it to the Americans,'' says one British private agency official in London. ``They've responded wonderfully in Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere . . . and McPherson himself is pushing it through.''
Yet McPherson is also attracting criticism these days -- from those opposed to the Reagan administration's policy of cutting funds to the UN population fund.
Critics favor continuing the historic US position of providing one-quarter of the annual budget of the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). The US money is essential, these pro-family planning groups argue, to enable third-world women to choose to have smaller, healthier, more manageable families.
The UNFPA says none of its funds support coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization as methods of family planning.
Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York and Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina disagree, saying UN funds do precisely that in China. They have pushed through legislative wording that has already diverted $10 million from the UNFPA in fiscal 1985 (which ended Sept. 30) and could take away the entire US contribution of $38 million to the fund in fiscal 1986.
All US family-planning funds are handled by AID (a total budget of $290 million in fiscal 1985).
During a long talk in his cavernous, paneled office, McPherson sank back in a leather chair and put his feet up. He talked freely about African famine -- but not about population.
On the famine he spoke about next year's challenge: providing cash (instead of food) to transport African surpluses to deficit areas.
On population issues, however, he politely but firmly referred back to previous press releases.
Famine relief is politically popular in Washington, but family planning is politically explosive. To keep his job, McPherson has little choice but to carry out policies now being formulated by active right-wingers on Capitol Hill -- and supported in the White House.
There is speculation that he would like to run for Congress, that he is a candidate for a United Nations post, or that he would like to head the World Bank.
He himself laughs at such speculation. ``I like my job and I intend to keep serving the President as long as I can,'' he says.
On African famine he talks specifics from the depths of his chair:
``Sudan needs more storage for its harvest. . . . Grain will have to be sent from surplus areas to deficit ones. . . . Ethiopia will need less food aid next year but around 900,000 tons of food anyway. We say 6,264,000 people still need food aid in Ethiopia, and we figure US grain is feeding about 3.5 million of them.''
Bluntly he criticized Mr. Mengistu's efforts to clear mountains of food aid sacks from the Red Sea port of Assab, Ethiopia. ``We are terribly unhappy at the backlog in Assab,'' he said.
Sources put the backlog at around 130,000 tons.
``The famine won't be on the TV screens so much next year,'' he went on. ``Public opinion won't be so strongly behind us.''
``Hopefully we've learned about famine relief this year so we can be more efficient with it next year.''
Will the immense US involvement in African famine aid lead to a wider US political role in Africa?
``We now have a deeper long-term commitment to help Africans solve their problems,'' according to McPherson.