The White House was calling.
Not the Oval Office White House with some important pronouncement. This was the Media Relations White House, a group of staffers that oversees the ebb and flow of the more mundane events staged near the mansion's West Wing, where the press hangs out.
Be it visiting Girl Scouts or the occasional champion sports team or a governor on a quest for money or sympathy, the Media Relations crew's job is to alert the appropriate newspaper and TV reporters to the arrivals of hometown or home state visitors to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Consider a recent visit of a delegation of Long Beach officials. They were invited by the White House to meet with upper-echelon Defense and Labor department officials to discuss rebuilding the city's economy, battered by a relentless series of military base closures.
While only the 32nd-largest city in the country, city officials point out, Long Beach took an economic hit comparable to the fifth-hardest-hit state.
A great deal of this sort of consultation and commiseration goes on in this city--at the White House and on Capitol Hill--and much of it amounts to precious little. Under the squishy rules of what gets the spotlight in Washington, frankly, the Long Beach colloquy could have easily gone undetected.
But the White House didn't let that happen.
The President and Chief of Staff Leon Panetta may personally join in the conversation, the Media Relations staffer noted in the telephone alert, thus raising the stakes by planting the suggestion that an announcement may be in the offing. Would Long Beach "get" something? Not for certain, but the possibility was left dangling.
The decision was then made to witness this speck of history, accompanied by the customary feelings of manipulation.
As it turned out, the event produced:
* An announcement of a $1.7-million Defense Department grant for Cal State Long Beach.
* Warm praise for the President, who actually popped in, shook hands and empathized.
* Warm praise for the Long Beach officials for taking such a positive, constructive approach to overcoming the devastation of their city's military infrastructure.
* An invitation to the President to visit Long Beach in the near future.
So it goes in the languorous tango between the Clinton Administration and California--a courtship as necessary to the President's political future as it is galling to other states who have less to offer in the pitiless arithmetic of electoral politics.
For the thousandth time, Clinton does not get reelected unless he carries California and its 54 electoral votes. But should he fail in that quest, it won't be for lack of effort.
As the Long Beach officials' visit points out, the White House has honed its California strategy to a fine edge--both in Washington and on the West Coast.
Rarely, in the President's 20-odd trips to the state, has he not dropped off some financial or regulatory goodie.
From earthquake aid to freeway reconstruction, from urban empowerment zones to Stanford University research grants, from defense conversion projects to waivers for the Los Angeles County public health system, the Administration has been very generous, very understanding.
So much so that presidential aides are quick to frame Clinton's attentiveness to California in a broader economic context--in order to dull the seeming expediency of it all.
"A lot of the [press] coverage of the trips to California misses the point," said John Emerson, former aide to City Atty. James Hahn and a deputy assistant to the President with special responsibility for California matters.
"Many of these announcements are the result of a lot of hard work over many months," Emerson said, " . . . like the [Los Angeles County] health care waiver. That was nine months of work with a lot of false starts and dead-ends.
"It's not just a question of California having a lot of electoral votes. California is not only a crucial economic component of the country but crucial in keeping the country economically strong over the next 50 years. That's the reason for all the focus."
Other aspirants for Clinton's job can't swallow that explanation.
"I don't believe his 20-plus trips are purely based on good government," said Gary Koops, a Washington spokesman for the presidential campaign of GOP Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. "You can argue whether it's appropriate or whether it's pandering, but the undeniable fact is that Bill Clinton will be back in Arkansas if he doesn't win California. They sure find lots of reasons to go out there."
Clinton visiting Long Beach? Bet on it.