The Press Club's Dinner of Ribs
Thursday, February 9, 2006
Outraged Muslims. Deep domestic budget cuts. War. Wiretaps. Allegations of corruption and cronyism. And who can forget that big oil monkey on our collective back?
It all rates as buzz kill. But buzz kill can't keep a good party down, at least when you're talking about those of the black tie and white wine type. Not in Washington. Not during an election year. And never, ever when the revelers are politicians and the members of the press who cover them. Buzz kill? These guys feed off the stuff.
Last night, they were eating it up at the Ritz-Carlton, site of the Washington Press Club Foundation's 62nd annual congressional dinner. It was the first in a season of such gatherings where pols and media types spruce up and poke fun at themselves and each other.
Speakers at this dinner, which raises money for scholarships and honors journalists for their work, have one mandate: Be funny. Funny is hard. Real hard.
Last night's speakers, Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, gave it a shot, but let's just say neither should give up his day job. Not that they seemed to harbor any illusions about that.
Specter did hit a few good ones offstage during the reception before dinner. His good friend and fellow cancer survivor, actress Fran Drescher, walked up to say hello. It was an unscripted moment and he ran with it. "If I had a voice like hers, I could have been elected president," Specter said, teasing the actress for her nasal tones.
But who knew Specter could be so blue. Blue, as in racy. He did a few jokes about his former Senate colleague Bob Dole, who went on to become a Viagra pitchman. He told a couple of "old stories," as he called them, about adultery and so forth. He gave the appearance of being edgy, but that was also a way to play it safe, stay away from the issues of the day. Specter didn't escape his own barbs, either.
"I know what you're thinking: Every year you're having a Democrat and a Republican, and this year you decided not to have a Republican," the Pennsylvania senator told the 800 or so guests. It was, of course, a nod to his own reputation as a moderate and someone who has frequently frustrated colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Hoyer, long-serving Maryland Democrat, stepped a little outside his reputation as a slow and steady, effective whip and threw a few jabs, sparing neither the GOP nor his own party. He joked about Tom DeLay, saying the former House leader signed letters to lobbyist Jack Abramoff with "I wish I knew how to quit you."
He joked about Sen. John Kerry launching a filibuster from Switzerland.
In a gag on this city's never-ending spin cycle, Hoyer played off the Bush administration's renaming of its controversial wiretapping program, which it recently dubbed the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Hurricane Katrina, he said, had become the Terrorist Submergence Program, and K Street would be renamed Anti-Terror Avenue. Bush poll results would henceforth be described as terrorist propaganda. As for his own party, he said it would describe close elections as moral victories and that his side of the aisle would be renamed the Party Formerly Known as Democrats.
The celebrity wattage was rather low. Miss America Jennifer Berry was there, the guest of CQ, on her first trip to Washington. She couldn't take a step without someone, including many an elected official, sidling up for a picture. Her handlers trailed a few feet behind, one carrying her purse, another a little brown box with her crown. Of course, Miss America travels with her crown.
"I haven't been able to see anything yet," she says, flashing those beautifully straight teeth. She arrived in the afternoon and is leaving today.
Across the room was media royalty. The irascible Helen Thomas was holding forth on Congress and the media and their steadily declining stock in the eyes of the public.
"A lot of mistakes have been made, obviously," she said. "Journalism has had a lot of setbacks. Reporters have to be more challenging" of politicians. And Congress, she said, hasn't "watched the store," the way it should. "But democracy still prevails."
Still, she said, these kinds of events are for a good cause, and it's good for media and the politicians they cover to relax with each other.
It wasn't a bad night for The Washington Post. Former reporter Helen Dewar received the lifetime achievement award and Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won the Bingham Prize. Deirdre Shesgreen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch received the David Lynch Memorial Reporting Award. Each won for their reporting on lobbyists. The Post team won for its investigative work on Abramoff. And Shesgreen won for a series on lobbyists and Missouri legislators. Dewar, who distinguished herself covering the U.S. Senate, was too ill to attend the dinner.
NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell hosted the evening, getting in a few jokes of her own, including shots at her husband, former Fed boss Alan Greenspan.
He's been retired for the past week, she noted, but he couldn't be at the foundation's dinner. "Somebody had to do the dishes," she quipped.