WASHINGTON — Staffers in the office of Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.) recently were discussing the annual Christmas dilemma: What to do with the chocolate Goodyear blimp that is usually sent them at the holidays. From guess who? (Hint: It is not from Michelin.)
Like everything else, gift-giving in Washington has its own peculiar flair and the occasional hidden motive. Goodyear happens to be the largest private employer in Slattery's district, although one would doubt a candy concoction would buy many votes. Companies do wish to make themselves known and bring congressmen a little holiday cheer, though. And what could brighten your mood more quickly than something as ridiculous as a chocolate blimp?
'Always Popular' Fins
"The fins on the side of the blimp are always popular," said Renee Wessels, Slattery's press secretary, as she anticipated the annual arrival of the holiday goodie.
As to the blimp's fate, last year it was eaten by the congressman's young sons, but "in past years," Wessels said, "the staff has beaten Jason and Michael to the blimp."
Goodyear is not the only heart filled with Christmas generosity. Ordinary gifts from ordinary folks also arrive, like the indoor Frisbee once sent by rock star Ted Nugent to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). But much of the take does come from businesses. Wilson is sent so many California-grown raisins, almonds, pears and grapes at Christmastime that his office begins to look like the produce section at Safeway.
The unspoken holiday message with these gifts is probably not so much, "Have a Nice Grape," as, "Give Us a Nice Break on Immigration and Trade Bills in the New Year."
To curb overzealous Christmas wishing, congressional ethics committee rules forbid members from accepting any gift or combination of gifts in a calendar year that are worth more than $100 and come from a party with an interest in legislation.
One Christmas a California store sent Wilson a giant Hair Bear, worth $400, and he gave it to the National Children's Hospital. A San Diego Chargers jogging suit also had to be given away, but for a different reason.
"It's tough to accept when you represent a state with four professional football teams," said former Washington press secretary Otto Bos, who now works out of Wilson's San Diego office. "So someone is walking around Washington in the senator's Chargers jogging suit."
Tied to Stanford
Wilson did, however, accept a Stanford University tie this Christmas, partly because he loves ties, and partly because, "I'm sure the senator must have a Cal tie," Bos said. "If not, after you publish this, he'll get one."
Precious few of the hundreds of Christmas gifts that rain down on government officials actually reach their stomachs or closets. Officials' staffers and aides look noticeably better fed at the holidays, and local charities reap a nice harvest of fruitcakes, produce and clothing as well.
"A lot gets distributed to the staff," said Bill Livingston, Wilson's press secretary. "There's only so much that two people (Sen. and Mrs. Wilson) can eat."
"It's amazing how fast a case of grapes can go," Bos recalled. "While the senator is working hard in some meeting, we're pilfering his gifts."
Candy is a big hit with the Wilson staff, as was Nugent's Frisbee, which is specially designed for safe use at rock concerts.
"I've acquired it," Bos revealed. "It's sitting on top of my autographed Pele soccer ball."
The avalanche of ties that piles up on Wilson's desk each Christmas enables him to pass on his old ties to a particularly disheveled staffer, according to Livingston.
"The senator always has these beautiful ties and the defense assistant doesn't have such beautiful ties," Livingston said. "They are ratty and bright, and have been around for a while."
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) is out of town and will not open his gifts until January, a press spokesperson, Martha Phan, said.
"He generally gets calendars, boxes of fruit, flowers, candy and wine," Phan said. "He shares the gifts with people on the staff, and his friends."
Calendars with scenes from a congressional member's home state are a big gift item with Capitol Hill people. Everybody receives at least a few dozen but nobody understands what eventually happens to them all, like the great mystery of lost socks.
The White House, a huge gift-giving target, refused to divulge whether each and every hand-crocheted slipper actually ends up on one of the First Feet, or goes instead to someone who needs it more, as is the White House tradition.
"Mrs. Reagan is very sensitive about not wanting to hurt the feelings of people who make the food and knit the sweaters," said Elaine Crispen, Mrs. Reagan's press secretary.
If Christmas compels you to find the way to the Reagans' hearts, forget edibles. The food they receive as gifts is destroyed as a security precaution.
"You just can't test those things without eating them," Crispen said.