The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Cinderella Still Waiting for Clock to Strike Twelve
February 27, 1977
By Peggy McCormally
Once upon a time the king invited all the ladies of the kingdom to a huge ball at the palace so that Prince Charming could choose his bride. It wasn't the king, but President and Mrs. Carter. And it wasn't all the ladies or a huge ball, but 46 couples invited to a State Dinner at the White House in honor of the Prime Minister and Mrs. Trudeau of Canada.
But the script changes didn't make me feel any less like Cinderella.
When John called me at work the previous Thursday afternoon to tell me we'd been invited to the dinner last Monday night, I was surprise, pleased, excited, worried, scared. You name the emotion and I experienced it in the make-believe days that followed. I still couldn't believe it all happened, had I not seen myself on both the CBS and NBC morning news shows.
How does a modern-day missus react to a fairy tale? Frankly, with pure delight. As I told the President in the receiving line, he hadn't just made my mother's day with his note to her, but the rest of her life. And he was doing the same for me. Who could believe this would, could, was, did happen? But I have the engraved invitation to treasure, and the memories
A State Dinner at the White House!
The house itself is so very special to Americans, because it is truly "our house" (made more so by the efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy to give us a sense of proprietorship). Each person visiting it finds his or her own special magic there. It reflects our link to the past, our trust in the present our hope for the future of a government with consent of the governed.
The White House, first called the Federal House, then the Palace for the President, was envisioned by L'Enfant in his plan for the city. It was designed by the Irish architect James Hoban, who won a gold medal worth $500 in the competition sponsored in 1792 by the Commissioners of the District. Although the house has been enlarged and rebuilt twice (once after the fire that destroyed it during the War of 1812, and again during the Truman administration), it is basically much as Hoban planned it.
We arrive promptly at 7:30, as the invitation directed, in the Diplomatic Reception Room, a large oval room with its French-made wallpaper (circa 1834) depicting "scenic America," and an enormous rug with the 50 state seals woven into it. We ascended the wide marble staircase to the entrance hall.
Sweeping down the hall on the arm of the handsome young Marine, with all the ribbons on his chest, was a bit unnerving but also familiar. After four weddings I felt sort of like the mother of the groom with John trailing along behind. But once announced over the loud speaker, and safely in the magnificent East Room, I felt better. We presented the little sealed envelopes we'd been given to the chief usher, who asked permission to open them, and told us I'd be at table 11 and John at table 6.
Waiters walked among the gathering guests with silver trays of orange juice, white wine, and a tall, pinkish punch. (Rosalynn Carter had announced early that no hard liquor would be served at White House functions.) The names of the guests were a mixture of the well known and the unknown. Energy Czar James Schlesinger assured us the thermostats were "locked in" at 65 degrees. But the Southern hospitality made it seem much cozier.
After the receiving line we walked down the hall, past the red-coated Marine musicians, into the State Dining Room, which is the same size as, and at the opposite end of the house from, the East Room. The 12 tables for eight were adorned with magnificent arrangements of red and blue anemones and slim tapers.
Each place setting included the Eisenhower china with the presidential seal surrounded by the federal blue border. The gold embossed napkin lay under the gold embossed place card (I not only brought mine home, but "accidentally" picked up the one which reads "The President," too). The three forks, three knives and spoon were vermeil (gold fired into silver). The four goblets were classic tulip shape.
I can't remember when it first dawned on me that I would be sitting with the President. I remember looking around and wondering where he would be sitting, and hoping my back wouldn't be to him.
With hindsight, I realize I should have known I was in THE place. My table was directly in front of the replica of the Theodore Roosevelt mantel under the Lincoln portrait and I could see the inscription Franklin Roosevelt had carved from the first letter ever written in the White House. It was from John Adams to Abigail: "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof."
Then, there we were. Clockwise around the table, President Carter was at one o'clock. On his left was Margaret Trudeau, an incredibly young (28) attractive, independent woman who wore a beautiful white wool dress. Next to her was Jesse Hill Jr., of Atlanta, who I would learn, is president of the giant Atlanta Life Insurance Co., and close friend of the Carters. Then ME, directly opposite the MAN, near enough to watch those blue eyes sparkling all evening. Then Robert Couteier, a lawyer from Lewiston, Maine, who uses French as his first language.
The wife of Sen. Henry Jackson was next, wearing a brown and white print shirtwaist dress with a high neck, which reminded me of the one Betty Ford had worn the last time we were at the White House for an editors' reception.
Then Rosalynn, charming, graceful, attractive in a blue flowing, jersey gown, looking calm, unruffled and totally at ease in her new surroundings, and smiling shyly at her President. Prime Minister Trudeau, still boyish looking at 57, rounded out our table.
As journalism, this should be accurate. As a fairy tale, it can't be. The more I became aware of where I really was, the more unaware I became of what was happening. I think we were served by two waiters at each table, plus the wine steward. Here is the menu, as printed in the personalized, blue program, with the presidential seal on it, which each of us had been given:
Saint-Michelle Alaska King Crab .
Chenin Blanc in Herb Sauce .
Louis Martini Roast Stuffed .
Cabernet Saddle of Lamb .
Sauvignon Timbale of Spinach .
Glaced Carrots .
Watercress and Mushroom Salad .
Wisconsin Blue Cheese .
Beaulieu Orange Sherbet Ambrosia .
Extra Cookies .
Dry - - Demitasse .
We served ourselves from large silver trays, which were offered first to Mrs. Trudeau and then counter-clockwise around the table. Long-ago mastery of "monkey see monkey do" save me from social disaster, but I wish I could have eaten more of the wonderful food. My heart in my throat made it hard to swallow.
I noticed that the President drank his half glass of the Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, but otherwise there was little wine drunk at our table. While the tables were being cleared for dessert, the Army strolling minstrels floated into the room and played several popular show tunes on their singing violins.
The President was deep in talk most of the time with the prime minister. But every time one of the slender candles burned down close to the flowers, he would stand up and blow it out. I have to admit I didn't talk to him much. He had acknowledged me when he came in with a hearty "glad you're here!" But Mrs. Carter talked about our pre-campaign visit to Plains, and told the others, probably more than they wanted to know, about me.
Margaret Trudeau is the exciting conversationalist. This young woman has won a fierce battle with the Canadian press for her privacy and independence. I would read later the bitchy comments of the Washington social writers about her audacity in wearing a short gown to this formal dinner. I wish they could have been with me, talking to this free spirit about the rights and responsibilities of individuals.
"Anyone who truly wants to be free, can be," she declared vehemently over the orange sherbet ambrosia. The short dress was surely just another gesture in her determined struggle to break out of the prison of conformity. When the President arose to toast the "Queen of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada," I noticed that he had scratched some notes on a 3 x 5 card during dinner, which he glanced at as he spoke to "his friends."
"Friends of the President." I'm still waiting for the clock to strike twelve!
Editor's Note: Mac's wife, Peggy, wrote this column at his request.
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