The man who would greet 'The Press'

January 27, 2011

There is a tradition on "Meet the Press," television's longest-running news program, to follow the political grilling and roundtable conversation with a friendly off-the-record breakfast. The show this past Sunday seemed no different. The host, David Gregory, signed off, the cameras stopped rolling, and a meal of shrimp and grits, bagels and lox, brie and apricots ensued.

But for veterans of the show, there was something sadly amiss about the waiter pouring orange juice and serving salmon to the familiar roster of political pundits. He was not Saadalla Mohamed Aly.

Aly, who died last month at 79 after contracting pneumonia on a trip to his native Egypt, served, greeted and ultimately endeared himself to the nation's leaders, power brokers and influence makers for roughly 30 years. As the show's perennially tuxedoed butler, "Mr. Aly," as he was universally known, represented an elegant conduit to a vanished old Washington, a place of exclusive salons, bipartisan cordials and relative gentility. Aly was a dependable figure who elevated his job and profile with elan and added to the richness of official Washington's fabric. In a town that is repeatedly transformed by professional churn and the fight of the week, day or hour, Aly harked back to an era when loyalty was inspired and reciprocated, and institutional memory - even in the green room - was prized. For him, if it was Sunday, it really was "Meet the Press."

"They were his family," said his daughter, Dalia Aly.

To Vice President Biden, Aly was "My friend! My friend!" Gregory's predecessor as "Meet the Press" host, Tim Russert, whom Aly adored, started Sunday with chants of "Aly! Aly! Aly!" Journalist Tom Friedman greeted him in Arabic. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hugged him. "Saadalla always made me feel welcome before I went in for my interrogation," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. "He will be missed." Author and publisher Jon Meacham recalled a "lovely man" in black tie, who was "as much a part of that ethos as the theme music."

The show's extended clan of politicians, pontificators, analysts and newsmakers are taking Aly's loss hard.

"In a Washington way," said Democratic strategist James Carville, who was shaken by the news of Aly's death, "he was kind of a friend."

"There was something about the sameness of having that person there," said historian and frequent guest Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom Aly called "Ms. Doris." "At the end of the show they put on those clips of 30, 40 years ago, you are aware of the historic nature of it, and he was an institution that connected you back to that time."

Backstage presence

For the guests, Aly served two fundamental functions. The familiarity he offered put them at ease before the show, and the food he served filled them up afterward.

Guests and crew alike recalled Aly plying them with copious club sandwiches and shrimp cocktails, cakes, glasses of orange juice. (Gregory called him "an Egyptian who was very much like a Jewish mother.") He patrolled the green room for unwelcome local news or "Today Show" scavengers.

But he took care of his own people.

"Mr. Aly used to stash away lox for me," said Regina Blackburn, a teleprompter operator who has worked at the show for 30 years. "He would pass them to me like secret FBI files."

And most everyone on the crew received trinkets - necklaces, matching jingly bracelets and earrings, sweet perfume - from his annual trip back home to Cairo. Inundated with tchotchkes, Penny Burk, the show's longtime makeup artist, asked for Egyptian cotton as an alternative.

"He brought back a bolt of the stuff," she said. "I don't know how he got it in his suitcase."

Like the elite he doted on, Aly had to earn his place on "Meet the Press." Born in Aswan, Egypt, in 1931, he lost both his parents young and ventured to Cairo at age 16, where he had the good fortune of finding employment with the wealthy Sabet family, a cousin of which, Suzanne Sabet, would go on to marry Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In the early 1950s, his employer was dispatched to Washington as Egypt's military attache, and he took Aly along to tend to his ailing wife.

"They kind of adopted him," said Aly's ex-wife, Magda Elsayed.

During his time with the Egyptian Embassy, Aly moonlighted at restaurants, and when his boss returned to Egypt, he asked to stay behind. With the embassy's help, he found a job in the World Bank's printing department in 1963. He married in 1970, had Dalia in 1971 and started donning a tux as a waiter at the area's tony parties for extra money.

"He was a snappy dresser," said Elsayed. "He felt that when you are waiter you serve with dignity."

A Sunday mainstay

In the mid-'70s, David Brinkley, the news anchor, hired Aly as a waiter, and he became a familiar face to the city's journalistic and political elite. Elsayed couldn't recall if Aly came to "Meet the Press" through a Brinkley connection or through his catering company, but shortly after the couple divorced in 1976 he worked his first Sunday show.

"He would always have cases of champagne in the trunk of his car," recalled Dalia, now a director of voluntary benefit programs with the Meltzer Group. As a young girl, she often accompanied her father to the show, where guests appreciated his post- (and sometimes pre-) conversation pour. "His Bloody Mary consisted of a glass of vodka with a splash of tomato juice."

Aly retired from the World Bank in 1997, but he kept his day-of-rest obligation. He woke up Sunday mornings at 4, had a breakfast of Lipton tea and Stella D'oro cookies, and drove, at a painfully slow pace, to the NBC studios on Nebraska Avenue. In the green room, he arranged the morning nosh and perused the weekly lineup in the adjacent makeup room, expressing approval of some guests (usually Democrats, said the crew) and bemusement about others.

In later years, with his health declining and his wit slowing, he would follow the taping with lunch at his daughter's home, where she argued that the show wasn't worth the hassle and that he should quit. He would grow angry with her, a rare occurrence, she said, and refuse. When crew members turned the tables on him for a recent birthday, presenting him a cake like the hundreds he had rolled out over the decades, he was visibly embarrassed.

Last year, Aly suffered a mini-stroke during the taping of the show, and crew members rushed him to Sibley hospital. He was never quite himself again, they said, but his loyalty remained intact. During the debilitating snowstorms last year, he called to apologize for not being able to make it to work, but then offered to try to dig out his car.

After Aly's death, Dalia arranged to have his body brought back to the Washington area, as his wish was to be buried near his daughter's home. His "Meet the Press" family was close, too. Betsy Fischer, the executive producer who started as an intern 20 years ago, and in whose ascent Aly took fatherly pride, attended a service for extended family and friends after the funeral. She invited Dalia back to the show she visited as a child. ("Where's the champagne?" Dalia asked when she arrived. "Because that's the last thing I remember.")

At the end of that broadcast, producers paid tribute with an onscreen photograph of Aly. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was in the studio as a guest, asked Gregory what had happened.

"It really got me," said Sharpton, who then offered his respects to Aly's daughter, explaining how missed her father would be. "Aly made guests feel like you were at a royal castle in England somewhere," said Sharpton. "By the second or third time you did the show, you'd look forward to him. He was part of the 'Meet the Press' experience."

As this past Sunday's show wound down, Aly's replacement, Michael Jarrin, 39, wearing a looser tuxedo than his predecessor, stood in the hallway quickly transferring warm appetizers from a toaster oven to garnished white platters. It was his first day, he said, and he would alternate the Sunday shift with a co-worker.

"We can't do what he did," Jarrin said of Aly. "I mean every Sunday."

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