The White House: Enlivening the Gray

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With the peculiarly keen insight of a man who for years was on the outside looking longingly in, Richard Nixon knows how much of a kick someone can get from spending a little time at the White House. Now that he can call the place his own, he has decided to share it; his welcome-mat policy has resulted in a record first-year total of 50,000 invited guests. They have been treated to an imaginative and varied array of entertainment. While the Nixon White House probably will never exchange its basic gray for psychedelic Technicolor, it has already shown itself to be the perfect background for colorful splashes of wit and talent.

One of the brightest was painted last week by British Actor Nicol Williamson, who was invited to perform for 270 people at the third of the Nixons' "Evening at the White House" series. Williamson enthralled his audience with soliloquies and songs from Shakespeare, passages from Death of a Salesman and Inadmissible Evidence, and snatches of Robert Benchley, E.E. Cummings and William Butler Yeats. Then he led the dancing — music courtesy of The World's Greatest Jazz Band — in the State Dining Room. At one point the multitalented Williamson grabbed a trumpet and played a few bars; later on grabbed some of his guests by belting out, in his husky baritone, I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby. "This should be an evening that swung!" exclaimed Reveler Williamson. "We should all have fun and everybody get boozed. And I hope we don't wake the people upstairs." Meaning Dick and Pat, who, as usual, retired quietly soon after the formal program ended.

Wrighter's Cramp

In their surprisingly breathless first year, the First Couple has presided over 64 state and official dinners. There have been 116 receptions and 19 Sunday worship services (the dinner invitations remain the most sought-after in Washington these days). The White House calligraphy staff, responsible for designing and painstakingly inscribing every invitation, have perpetual wrighter's cramp. Those accepting the invitations (and few do not) have witnessed a tumble of talent: Duke Ellington and Andrew Wyeth, Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein, Bob Hope and Red Skelton, and the Broadway cast of 1776.

Hardly had the Williamson fete's bitter-enders left (at half past midnight) than Lucy Alexander Winchester, the petite and pretty White House social secretary, began fretting about the early-April state dinner for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Nor is that the only social sail on the horizon. Lucy seldom has the luxury of juggling only one dinner's china at a time; before the duke and duchess come a group of African ambassadors.

Not every soirée at the Executive Mansion has been an unqualified wow. Singer Robert Goulet was loud and uneven before Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau; reaction was mixed to Songstress Peggy Lee's performance for French President Pompidou. One night during Prime Minister Harold Wilson's visit, a black limousine rolled up to the front portico at the appointed hour. The Army heralds were ready. Out trilled Rule, Britannia. Out of the limo stepped Spiro Agnew.

Crisp Party

Still, most of it goes swimmingly, and with good reason: the President, says Lucy, "likes a crisp party." That means seating charts and chair counts, no photographers after the President's Ruffles and Flourishes arrival, smoothly flowing receiving lines. The hardest thing, says the social secretary, is "keeping the staff vertical and going at top performance, but people around here are pretty well trained."

That might well apply at the top too, for the Nixons are far removed from the quiet, dinner-alone first days in residence. Non-Swinger Nixon seems to tolerate and even to relish the hostly role he has assigned himself. No matter if the blast from below keeps the man upstairs awake for a while. He seems delighted to be able to gratify all those people who pine to spend an evening in the White House.