By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006
There on the dais last night at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner stood the president and his id. Now there are those nattering nabobs of negativity who would argue that this was not the first time that the president's id made a public appearance, but let's play nice, people, shall we? Because last night the Presidential Id was indeed there, in a first-ever appearance, riffing along with President Bush in a dueling-banjos speech.
(Okay, so it was really comedian Steve Bridges, doing a scarily on-point impersonation. But for a moment, even we were fooled.) The Id pointed out that Laura was in attendance at the Hilton Washington and that "she's hot." Then after complaining about having to dine with liberal media types and decadent Hollywood folk, demanded, "Why can't I have dinner with the 36 percent that like me? . . . Oh, there's Justice Scalia! . . . Where's the Great White Hunter? . . . What a goofball. Shot the only trial attorney that's for me. . . . He was drunk as a skunk."
Whereupon the real President Bush inserted, "Cheney's a good man. He's got a good heart." Pause. "Well, he's a good man."
And that, folks, is exactly the point of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a rather unlikely confluence of Hollywood glitterati and Beltway bombast, with politicos, blinged-out celebs and ink-stained wretches hanging out together: Watch the president yuk it up at his own expense! ("Ladies and gentlemen, I'm feeling really good tonight. I survived the White House shake-up.") Check out Ann Coulter, that persnickety pundit, and note that yes, she really is that skinny. Watch Laurence Fishburne seemingly part the waters as he pushes through the crowd.
Listen to Stephen Colbert, of "The Colbert Report," cracking wise about how he could be the new presidential press secretary, because, when it comes to the media, "I have nothing but contempt for those people." And then show a little video clip of what his first day as press secretary would be like. (Hint: not very successful.) The humor's supposed to be topical, and so we laughed when Colbert said, "If anyone needs anything from your tables, just speak slowly and clearly into your numbers and someone from the NSA will be there shortly." We're not sure if Valerie Plame laughed, though. Or Karl Rove.
But before we got to the official dinner, there were the pre-parties, hosted by various and sundry news organizations, inside and outside the Hilton, with ball-gowned guests, many of whom were sporting rather unfortunate footwear. (Black stockings plus sensible sandals plus glittery ball-gowns equals a very large fashion don't.) At the exceedingly crowded Newsweek party, we were confronted with a multiple choice: Kissinger or Clooney? There we were, doing the pre-shindig hobnob thing, quite literally rubbing shoulders with the elder statesman and the not-so-elder, um, politically invested civilian.
If we were deep, we would've gone with choice No. 1, but we're not deep, so we turned to choice No. 2, stuck out our hand and said, "Hi George! I'm -- [our name]." He turned, crinkled up, wrapped his hand in ours and said, "Hi [our name]." In the nanosecond that we were contemplating what to ask him -- How's the Darfur campaign? How about that White House makeover? What's up with you and Brad and "Ocean's Thirteen?" -- Mary Matalin shoved her bobbed coif into our line of vision and started blabbing to George. He asked her, "How's the Devil?" We're assuming he meant James Carville. We couldn't hear her answer, but we did hear her giggle.
And then she announced to everyone, "I'm actually in love with his father, but I know all you young girls are in love with him." Riiiiiiight. And then one of the young girls in Clooney's orbit shoved her business card in his hand and said, "I know this is ridiculous, but I really want to work in film. If you've got anything, anything at all, please call me."
Yes, it was ridiculous, but George was too much of a gentleman to tell her so, or maybe he didn't have the time, because the lights were flashing, which meant it was time to get frisked by the Secret Service before heading in to consume minute quantities of sea bass and mustard-rubbed filet mignon, and he was spirited off by two burly gentlemen.
The thing is, the White House Correspondents' Dinner, held at what is often referred to as the Hinckley Hilton, an irreverent reference to an unfortunate historical event, is basically a good excuse for allegedly dignified journalists to act the fool. (Yes, us included.) Where else can you shed all sense of decorum and go chasing after Terrence Howard in mad pursuit of a "quote?" Or shove your mug in front of "Desperate Housewives" star James Denton and maneuver an impromptu photo op?
Yes, this is an event where you can see the president, via the Jumbotron, scarfing down sea bass while sitting on the same dais with Colbert. Clap politely when the journalism awards are handed out: Laisha Doughterty and Angela King of Washington's School Without Walls won scholarships, as did Douglas Jackson-Quazac of the University of Maryland. Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer of Copley News Service won the Edgar A. Poe Award; the Merriman Smith Award went to Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press. The Aldo Beckman Award went to the National Journal's Carl Cannon.
But truly, this is all about the gawk -- and the "get." This year the controversial guest was Plame (no word on whether she and Rove crossed paths). Justice Clarence Thomas hung out at the Chicago Tribune table and New Orleans's Ray Nagin was there, earning him a shout-out from Colbert, who declared, "Mayor Nagin of the Chocolate City! Welcome to the Chocolate City with the marshmallow center."
Somewhere out there -- we tried, but never managed to spot him, was new White House press secretary Tony Snow. (Colbert: "Secret code name Snow Job.") Jesse Jackson was in the house. Howard's dates were his two daughters, 12 and 8 years old. ("I've got to keep an eye out for my babies," he said.) But by far, the belle of the ball was Clooney, political junkie that he is, who might as well give up his day job and start toiling as a cub reporter for The Washington Post.
But it wasn't just journos doing the gawking. Turns out that the celebs who show up here are all about the gawk, too. Or, as Denton (a guest of USA Today) put it, "It's nice to be in a place where A-list has a different meaning. Here," as actors, "we're meaningless."
He said this as a reporter ran up and snapped a pic of him with her PDA. Not so meaningless, we say.
"Yes," Denton admitted, "but I'm around actors all the time. I'm a political junkie. This is a thrill."
Also looking thrilled was actress Patricia Clarkson, tiny and elegant in brown brocade, who looked as happy at the prospect of meeting Chris Matthews as a certain reporter was with sort-of-meeting Clooney.
"I've always wanted to come to this," the New Orleans native enthused. "I'm a political junkie. A journalism junkie. I loooove journalists."
Just where did this love for the fourth estate come from? Her mother's a politician -- in a runoff for the city council -- and so she learned early to love. She's just back from New Orleans herself, shooting a commercial for her mom, Jacqueline.
"I hope it helps her," she said.
Others, like Hill Harper of "CSI: New York" and Joe Pantoliano, formerly of "The Sopranos," and Washington's own Jeffrey Wright, came because they had an agenda. All were guests of the Creative Coalition and were looking to make sure that, as Pantoliano put it, "get to see people who run my country," pulling in close. ("I'm sorry. I'm deaf and I lost my voice," he said, grabbing a hank of our hair and brushing it out of our face.) He continued: "I get to do a little lobbyism. I get to talk to congressmen. I've changed some minds."
Something about unfair trade and Canada, and he went on a bit about how Rhode Island now has a 25 percent tax credit. Pantoliano was starting to sound a bit like the pol he says he'll be playing in a CBS pilot, "The City."
A corrupt politician, we noted, a bit amused at the irony of an actor playing a politician trying to hang with real politicos.
"Noooo, I play an ethically challenged mayor."
He bends the rules for a good cause.
Well alrighty then.
It was time for dinner, and in the crush of the ballroom, we spotted Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, rapper-actor from the ATL (Atlanta that is), talking about how he's determined to "represent on behalf of hip-hop. Hip-hop is more prevalent than it's ever been. You can't ignore us."
At this point, he turned and inquired, "Who are you with?" The Washington Post, we said.
"Then I need to be very careful about what I say," he said, as his nameless tableside companion nodded assent.
At this point, fortified by a gulp or three of cabernet, we mustered the nerve to ask some hard questions of Mr. Luda:
Quoting from the lyrics of one of his songs, where he boasts that he's got "ho's in area codes," we inquired as to which area code in the Washington metropolitan area did said ho's reside.
"That," he replied, "is definitely not something I want to have in The Washington Post."