Twenty years on the record

ON Monday, Feb. 24, the 20th anniversary of the Godfrey Sperling-Christian Science Monitor breakfast series was observed at a breakfast meeting at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel in Washington. The attendance was good, as it should be. The press was well represented, as was Congress. Officials ranging from Clark Clifford, who was a part of the Truman administration, to Caspar Weinberger, of the Reagan administration, were there. Tributes were well spoken, both to Godfrey and to the Monitor. Jokes, now a standard part of every Washington meeting, were told, some good, some bad. The distinguishing marks of the Sperling breakfasts were given too little notice. Those marks were, first, that the press attendance was limited to the writing press. The clutter and distractions of lights, cameras, and recorders were excluded. The guest was assured, therefore, that what he might say would get the attention of a listener and the further attention, unless the reporter trusted a long memory, of being recorded at least in written notes. The second distinguishing mark of the breakfast meetings was that they were ``on the record.'' This distinction is especially important, in a city of ``off the record'' comments, of ``background briefings,'' usually limited to a few chosen reporters, or radio and TV cor respondents, ``inside sources,'' ``high sources,'' especially at the State Department, ``anonymous'' senators, and so on. Participants were not even allowed the congressional courtesy of revising their remarks. What was said was said.

An invitation to appear at a Sperling breakfast was a kind of challenge, a test of one's openness and courage. What came out was usually on the positive side. Things that should have been put on the public record were placed there. Politicians who might otherwise have remained ``anonymous sources'' became known. The timid became brave; the hesitant and apologetic, outspoken. Why? it must be asked.

I think there were at least five conditions bearing on what happened: The sponsorship of The Christian Science Monitor, a publication generally considered in Washington to be restrained, above partisanship, at best, and bipartisan, at worst, as objective and fair, and of limited circulation.

The character of Godfrey Sperling, who has about him an air of innocence not noticeable in most Washington re-porters and newsmen. He seems kindly, certainly disarming, asking hard questions, as though the difficult answer he expected would hurt him as much as the person expected to answer.

The time of the meeting, 8 o'clock in the morning, before Washington is well awake at breakfast, accepted as a time of privileged conversation.

The room in which the breakfast meetings were generally held. A room of great austerity, monastic in its simplicity, and without either political or religious pictures or symbols. Asceticism was the ambiance and the d'ecor.

The food service, an unchanging menu. Those who accepted an invitation knew what to expect. There were the waiting orange and grapefruit juice and coffee, set out early enough so that by the time the guests arrived, both had reached room temperature, or very near it -- the juice warming toward that point, the coffee cooling. The first course was usually cantaloupe or a fruit compote. The eggs, which followed, were complemented by bacon and by fried potatoes of unusual shape and consistency, the whole complex -- eggs, bacon, and potatoes -- being served at a temperature slightly above that of the human body.

All of these forces, personalities, institutions, general environment, and food came together so that for the running of one hour at least, even the dishonest were moved to truthfulness.

Eugene J. McCarthy is the former Democratic senator from Minnesota.

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