WASHINGTON — The Hart scandal has completely overwhelmed the Iran- contra hearings as the top topic of conversation in Washington this week, mixing sorrow with hard-edged jokes, thriving in cabs, at luncheons, in congressional cloakrooms, and on talk shows.
Perhaps the tone of the discussion became more somber Thursday when word came that sources were saying the senator had scheduled a press conference this morning at which he was expected to withdraw from the presidential race. But Hart remained the focus of attention.
That's how it was a day earlier at the Shoreham Hotel, where thousands of women in brightly colored spring frocks, many sporting hats and white gloves, joined Nancy Reagan at a luncheon of current and past congressional wives.
This is a very old-fashioned, annual event begun by the Congressional Club wives many years ago to pat themselves on the back for their contributions to their husbands' careers. The theme of the luncheon was "Memories," and everyone received a dainty gift bag of cosmetics, jewelry and a can of prunes. But the talk was not of political wives' fond memories or beauty secrets. The conversation about the wronged political wife, Lee Hart, was flying across the hot pink tablecloths at Mach II.
"If my husband called a 29-year-old model six times, I don't care where he is or how tired he is, if my husband had a date with her I'd kill him," fumed the wife of a Western Republican member of Congress.
Few here seemed to fully accept Hart's explanation that his relationship with Donna Rice, marked by frequent telephone calls and a disputed amount of time spent in Hart's townhouse last weekend, was "casual and political."
"They talk politics?" asked Phyllis Greenberger, a lobbyist for the American Psychiatric Assn., who had attended the lunch as one wife's guest. "Does he call her and say, 'What do we do about the national debt?' "
"The telephone calls, it's amazing!" replied Susan Sikorski, the wife of Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Mn.).
"He needed a diversion?" asked Kay Smith, wife of Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.), referring to another defense that had been offered of Hart's conduct. "What's wrong with talking to your wife? I think all congressional wives are on the side of Lee Hart."
"I feel real sad for Lee Hart," Sikorski said. "Don't you?"
"I don't feel sad for Lee Hart," said Janis Berman, the wife of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City.) "I feel outraged that he would do this to her. After all she's done on the campaign that he would have the chutzpah to take a weekend off with a 29-year-old model! Give me a break!"
Said one wife, "The only winner in the whole thing is Rice. She'll have a movie and be on Oprah Winfrey."
Republicans are grinning and bearing it as their biggest scandal since Watergate gets brushed to the back edges of the Washington psyche. Even the Iran- contra hearings were relegated to becoming the scene of jokes about Hart and actress Donna Rice, who have admitted to frequent phone calls, spending some time together last weekend in Washington and taking an overnight cruise to Bimini, where they said they slept on separate boats.
During Iran-hearing testimony about what happened to the millions of dollars involved in the arms deal, House Counsel John W. Nields at one point asked retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, "So you could have gone off and bought an island in the Mediterranean with the $14 million?"
Replied Secord, "Yes, Mr. Nields, but I did not go to Bimini."
The entire room burst into laughter.
Overheard elsewhere on Capitol Hill: One member of Congress said to his colleague, "Gary Hart is incapable of running a covert operation."
Snapped another in reply,"That's a good reason to vote for him for President."
"Yesterday when I heard the first Gary Hart jokes, my first impression was, 'That's the begining of the end,' " said Gary Lawrence, a long-time research specialist for political candidates.
"There are two phases," Lawrence said by telephone from his Santa Ana office, "One is when people start making up jokes, and phase two is how the candidates respond to it."
Lawrence pointed out that President Reagan tackled the age issue during his 1984 campaign with humor, saying that he would not attempt to exploit Walter Mondale's youth and lack of experience. But does the subject of marital infidelity lend itself to self-deprecating humor?
"It probably does not," said Lawrence.
In the evening, at an elegant formal dinner party for U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick, Republicans seemed to have more to celebrate than just Wick's ongoing efforts. One suggested that for Hart's new campaign slogan that he could borrow the motto of Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign, "Just Say No."