Caution: Invitations Ahead

Posted: May 02, 2001 12:00 AM
Invitations can be tricky, as President Bush most keenly discovered on Monday when he invited the whole legislative gang to lunch and was greeted by only 193.

We're told that Southwest chicken and Angus beef were served, which raises the incidental question: Were the kitchen staff advised by the relevant steward that only one-third of the invitees would show up? If so, how was the information gathered? Was the FBI called in, discreetly to inquire? But the FBI is a crime-fighting outfit, and it is not a crime to turn down a White House invitation. So it would have been a matter of guesswork: How many Democratic legislators, how many GOP, would turn up? Leaving unanswered the question: What was done with all the leftover chicken and beef?

Then there is the question of motive. Attention focuses on what it is that caused individual senators and congressmen to stay away. Observers were quick to point out that Monday is a busy day for members of Congress, often spent traveling back from weekend work in their home districts. They just couldn't alter their plans on such short notice.

But then there were others who were free, or could manage to be free, but chose not to accept the invitation. When that happened to another king, in another age, he was wroth, and sent forth his agents to get other guests, teaching us that many are called but few are chosen.

Social invitations that run up against politics cause potentially embarrassing situations. Might President Bush have accosted Rep. Gephardt, his mouth full of chicken, and said: "Remember, Dicky-boy, there's no such thing as a free lunch!" What would the minority leader have done? With the host? With the food?

Two days before the White House's failed lunch, the White House correspondents had their annual dinner party, a huge affair with several thousand diners. A mischievous table arranger managed to seat, at a single table, Charles Colson, Pat Robertson, and the ambassador from China and his wife.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner calls for an amusing speech by the president and an amusing speech by a professional comedian, and the difference between the two is progressively difficult to isolate. The president's address on Saturday was made up of snippets from Mother's family picture album projected on huge screens, and accompanied by jocular commentary by the president. One picture showed 21-year-old George W. standing alongside a fighter plane in Texas when he served in the Texas Air National Guard. The comment was, "I'm the one who committed the state of Texas to defend Taiwan from attack."

That brought a roar of laughter from everyone, but not from Yang Jiechi, no sirree. He sat frozen in his chair, his features coldly set in resolute disapproval. One has to wonder: Would it have been reported to Peking if the ambassador had actually -- laughed?

It was a nice political joke, but reminded us that totalitarians can't take a joke. Ogden Nash wrote 60 years ago that if Germans had merely paused for one minute to view themselves goosestepping, arms upraised, declaiming "Heil Hitler!" what would have happened would have been a national convulsion of self-derisive mirth, which is always to be preferred to a world war.

But then, moments later -- just when the ambassador was beginning to enjoy his steak -- who gets introduced at the dais? Shane Osborn. And the whole assembly breaks out in applause.

So there is Peking's man in Washington, seated -- which was torture enough -- between the two most prominent Christian activists in America, trying to get through his meal, and having what seemed all of Washington cheering and applauding the commander of a U.S. spy plane that had tossed a Chinese cowboy into the sea, and then landed on Chinese soil!

Who invited Mr. Yang? Was he warned that Americans laugh? Are capable of laughing at their own expense, but also at the expense of Peking? And that they are capable of not laughing when Peking perseveres in its unholy wars against religious faith?

But dinner at the Capital Hilton that night was a high-price affair, and the place was crowded. Maybe President Bush should have put a higher price tag on lunch at the White House. Clinton did, and had a stream of guests.