Piers Morgan seemed to coast across the crowded dinner hall of the Washington Convention Center: Sails puffed full, strong gust at his back. Though skewered by critics, Larry King’s British replacement is suddenly a ratings success for a newly re-ascendant CNN. Jolly good time to attend a big media-political schmooze, eh?
“Am I the only one who’s not talking?” Morgan chortled to a table of friends and total strangers at Wednesday night’s Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner, after some half-a-dozen speakers had been introduced from the dais. “They haven’t started talking yet, and I’m already bored!”
“Please don’t say you’re bored,” his publicist murmured, cutting her eyes in our direction,
“What, do you run this thing?” Morgan chuckled as he went in for the handshake. Nope, we’re just… the person writing this story (a guest of his network). He moved on, unruffled, to a flock of giddy CNN staffers. (“During the royal wedding,” warned one, “we’re going to have you on All. The. Time!”)
Yes, there were a lot of speeches. This year, instead of snagging the president or vice president as star attraction, the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association deployed four young members of Congress to deliver comic riffs.
The 67-year-old gala, newly rebranded as the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner, has become — at half the size and star power of the White House Correspondents’ dinner — a popular alternative for media barons looking to impress advertisers and political sources with a fancy night out. Awards for journalism excellence went to ABC’s Jonathan Karl and NBC’s Richard Engel; there was also a tribute to Cairo News Company’s Tahrir Square coverage.
The speeches: Well, what do you expect, when you put freshmen in front of a room this big? Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) went meta, a speech-about-a-speech. “On this piece of paper, I have the initials of each of my staff members that thought this joke was funny... Laugh or we’re gonna add one or seven people to the unemployment roll.”
Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) went mean, towel-snapping at press and colleagues. He declared Politico “the worst media outlet in history,” and the joke was… well, he didn’t seem to be joking. He promised that bad spelling is not genetic, but in defense of his dad: “So he misspelled ‘potato.’ In the words of another vice president, ‘big effing deal.’”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — sigh. It’s nice he can laugh about the “Aqua Buddha” thing, and he has a pleasantly Owen Wilsonish drawl. Otherwise: [crickets]. Did he not try out this material with anyone?
It took a seventh-termer to school these rookies. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) brought down the house with a slide show of his doppelgangers (Rachel from “Glee”? Horshack from “Welcome Back, Kotter”?) and montage of his talking-head battles. (Seems the congressman has a prima-donna way of turning away from the camera when a Fox anchor ticks him off.) And he managed to find new laughs in the two men who are the butt of so many jokes at dinners like this.
On his own name and the schoolyard taunts it drew, Weiner invoked House Speaker John Boehner. Pronounced “bainer,” remember? “Who is Boehner fooling?” Weiner said. “What am I, Anthony Wainer? I’m serious, brother, just embrace it!”
And in Rahm Emanuel, Weiner said he found inspiration for his own possible run for mayor of New York.
“Who knew that all it took to be a mayor of a big city is to be a hot-tempered, arrogant, loud Jew with nine-and-a-half fingers?” said Weiner. “In other news, I’ve taken a job at Arby’s as the meat cutter.”
Yes, there was a professional comic in the room: Larry Wilmore of “The Daily Show,” who expressed bemusement that Obama did not RSVP in the positive. “Maybe he thought that by coming to the Congressional Correspondents’ dinner, it would seem like he consults with Congress, I don’t know.”