Posted: Oct. 10, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

It was a good thing the Delaware Republicans were holding their premier event of the year at a hunt club, because they had to go and find U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the party's top elected official who was being recognized Friday evening at this "Salute at Vicmead."

Castle was missing because he had spent the week on a fact-finding trip to Iraq with seven other members of Congress, and the scheduling and the traffic turned out to be too much to get him from the Washington area, where his flight landed, to the Vicmead Hunt Club in time for the gathering.

In the glory days of the early 20th Century, Vicmead really did house hounds and horses to send on a hunt over the hills of Chateau Country in northern Delaware, but that age has passed. In the go-go life of the early 21st Century, the Republicans tracked down Castle in a fashion that was much less romantic.

He was hooked up with the crowd through the modern wizardry of the cellular phone and a speaker system.

"I have had the privilege of introducing Mike Castle for 40-some years, but it's the first time I've done it when he isn't here," cracked National Comitteeman W. Laird Stabler Jr.

Castle spoke for about 10 minutes, giving the first public accounting of what he had seen. In a rarity for such a gala event, there was stone quiet. That will happen when people are listening to such things as Castle's description of flying on a military transport with the flag-draped remains of soldiers on their last ride home.

"It gives you a real sense of the danger that is Iraq," Castle said. "When you move around the streets of Baghdad, you move with a lot of protection, a lot of guns, and you move fast."

The six-term congressman left Iraq optimistic about the rebuilding efforts there after briefings about the efforts being made to restore roads, schools and the mail system -- "all the things I used to talk about when I was governor" -- but less confident about security matters.

He also found the information about the search for weapons of mass destruction "a little scantier than I would like" but was withholding judgment until there was more time to accomplish it.

Otherwise, Castle appeared to have little doubt about the course being taken. "You're talking about democracy in a place that's never known democracy. It's a major transition," he said. "If we're going to do this, we're going to do this correctly. Iraq is the key to the entire Middle East."

Castle's words were broadcast to about 300 people at the Republicans' 19th annual salute, a fund-raiser that features leading officeholders and brings the party to the heartland of its contributor base. Tickets went for $150 for individuals to $2,000 for patrons.

The Vicmead fund-raiser was started in 1985 by former Republican State Chairman Basil R. Battaglia when he was the deputy chairman as a salute to Castle, then the governor, and William V. Roth Jr., then a U.S. senator.

There is even a precedent for a missing officeholder at Vicmead. Roth was set to receive the prime salute in 1995 shortly after he became the Senate Finance Committee chairman, one of the most influential posts in Washington, but his expanded responsibilities kept him in the capital that evening. He had to send a videotape as a stand-in.

"I'm very disappointed to be missing one of my favorite political events," Roth said at the time. "Taking the helm of the Finance Committee has presented me with exciting opportunities -- but having the time to celebrate is not one of them."

Vicmead has such a glamorous reputation that sometimes even Democrats cannot resist it. Joseph P. Farley Sr., a former Democratic state chairman, was there, although it was in his capacity as a lobbyist for Conectiv.

Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the national committeewoman, took a telephone call from Samuel L. Shipley, another Democratic ex-chairman, inquiring about the event and teasing that he had heard the cost of a ticket was $10.

"Honey," Rakestraw told him, "you can come for $10, and I'll put your name on a sponsor's table."

Shipley must have thought better of it. He never showed.