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Partying With Presidents - a Tradition

I've been going to White House Christmas parties for the press for a number of years. My continuous span of annual attendance began with Richard Nixon and has extended through Jerry Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and, now, Bill Clinton's first term. If nothing else, I think I have established myself as a bipartisan attendee at these functions.

Actually, even earlier I went to one of Lyndon Johnson's Yuletide celebrations in the later years of his presidency. I don't recall much about it except a question that a Republican friend asked on hearing about it at the time: "Why would anyone want to go to a party of Lyndon Johnson's?"

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Partying with presidents, I've learned, evokes as much scorn as it does envy. Critics seem convinced of one thing: That such an affair is simply a device used by a president to capture the affection of a member of the press or, at least, to soften him up a bit.

Indeed, these critics see such Washington holiday get-togethers as a devious means of corrupting the journalists who attend.

I thought of all this the other day when I happened to mention to an acquaintance that my wife and I were going to the White House Christmas party that evening. "Why," he asked, "would you want to spend that time with Bill Clinton?" Yes, another Republican heard from!

Over the years I've received similar derisive comments from Democrats who saw little reason to greet and rub shoulders with the Nixons, Fords, Reagans, and Bushes.

Actually, you get very little opportunity to schmooze with the president at these parties. The Clintons grasp your hand when you reach them in the long receiving line. A few words of holiday greeting are exchanged; a picture is quickly taken; and then an usher gently guides you along to make way for the next person in line.

Because of a fortuitous arrival time we just happened to be first in the receiving line this year. While we waited, the Yale glee club sang to the Clintons who were in the next room but only a few feet away from us.

We could hear both of them laughing at times and, when the singing was over, expressing their appreciation.

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Then came our quick "fly-by" with the Clintons. I told him that I had been coming to these affairs every year since President Nixon. I was about to add that one Christmas season Mr. Nixon was so mad at the press he wouldn't come down to greet us. But I was whisked away too fast to get that comment in.

Both Clintons were most gracious. But I thought that the president was a little preoccupied. He wasn't the bumptious, back-slapping fellow who greeted us at his first White House Christmas back in 1993.

Indeed, that fellow had given way to a more restrained - although always warm and hospitable - Bill Clinton with each succeeding year in the White House.

To us, it is always a magical evening: Beautifully decorated Christmas trees in room after room; huge wreaths, ribbons, and arrays of lights. A military band is always on hand, playing the full range of old Christmas favorites. We had a wonderful time.

Was I co-opted by this access to the president? I certainly hope not. I had a chance to look him over and observe that he was full of bounce and apparently in good health. It's important for the press to be able to have this up-close observation. Television is no substitute for seeing someone in person.

Yes, I partook of the bountiful repast and thought, a little guiltily, that the taxpayers were paying for all this. This feeling was only marginally relieved when I learned later that the Democratic National Committee was picking up the tab. I didn't feel comfortable owing my feast to the generosity of a political party.

But, as has always been the case, the Christmas party turned out to be helpful to me in my work.

For example, it was most useful to me to learn from one of the attendees that his star investigative reporter was talking to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr "about every two weeks" and that "no indictments of White House people seem imminent - at least no indictment of Hillary."

I also lined up a Monitor breakfast session with Clinton's new, top economic adviser, Gene Sperling (no relation of mine).

So I end up feeling relatively good about it all and ready for next year's Christmas party.

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