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On a Wintry Night, the Press And the Politicians Get Cozy

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Another year, another black-tie dinner commingling the press and the pols, another way to stay warm on an utterly chilly night. For this one night, we could forget about the forgetful Scooter Libby, domestic budget cuts, the streets of Baghdad.

We could even forget that it's an "American Idol" night.

On this Tuesday night, there was a party to be had and a journalistic legend -- the indefatigable Helen Thomas -- to be honored. And not even the threat of snow could stop the 63rd annual congressional dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation.

Bob Schieffer, the venerable CBS newsman, played host in a jovial, playful tone. Together with ringers Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), he faced the toughest task of all: Make a roomful of journalists and politicians laugh.

In introducing Kennedy and Boehner, Schieffer said: "I've known these men for many years. And they are the cleanest . . ."

Boehner commented on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's new no-smoking rule: "We can still smoke out on the balcony. But, Nancy, it was 20 degrees out there. I think I want a seat on your global warming committee."

And Kennedy said of Boehner, "We don't always believe in the same issues, but I believe in his right to make his mistakes."

It was a tough crowd at the Ritz-Carlton. But it worked. Sort of.

And anyway, it was all for a good cause. At $175 a plate and with 850 guests in attendance, last night's fete served as a benefit for the foundation, which provides scholarships for women and minorities. A good and necessary cause, indeed, especially considering the lack of people of color in the crowd.

The foundation's dinner is the kickoff to the annual string of press-plus-pols parties (the Gridiron, Radio-TV, White House correspondents) of the year. Seeing the elected officials and the reporters who cover them getting all chummy is a curious thing. If you're an outsider to all of this, making your way from the VIP room to the ballroom, a glass of merlot in hand, you ponder the separation of newsmaker and journalist. A lyric runs through your head: "The press and the pols, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G."

Judy Holland, a congressional reporter for Hearst Newspapers and the president of the foundation explained: "On the Hill, all bets are off, the notebooks out. But on a night like this, we're a community, and we're celebrating a coming of age. First woman speaker of the House. A woman as a presidential front-runner. Helen Thomas. I yanked my 13-year-old daughter from her homework so she could be here and see what it all means."

Daryl Hannah was there, seated at the same table as Lauren Nelson, the newly crowned Miss America. And, yes, the actress is Amazonian, all legs. She's not the political schmoozer type, she says, but she was here to talk about global warming ("We're at a crossroads right now") and show her support for the new Democratic Congress.

"Who's your congressman?" you asked her.

A beat later, she replied, "I live in a couple of places simultaneously."

Arianna Huffington waited in the coat line, at one point dropping $1 and $5 bills from her purse as she greeted Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) with a kiss on the left cheek. "I was in Davos," she told him. "One of those capitalist gatherings." They laughed.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) whisked on by, followed by "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, then Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, an endless parade of the who's-who of the K Street-Capitol Hill-Washington-press-corps set.

The foundation dates back to 1919, when a handful of journalists formed the Women's National Press Club. They weren't welcome to the all-male National Press and Gridiron clubs. The foundation's annual dinner began in 1944, a kind of a welcoming party to the sociopolitical circuit for freshmen members of Congress.

As always, honors were handed out last night. The David Lynch Memorial Reporting Award went to David Lightman of the Hartford Courant and John E. Mulligan of the Providence Journal. A new scholarship, funded by the New York Times and the foundation, was announced, named after slain Timesman David Rosenbaum.

But no honor meant more than the lifetime achievement award bestowed on veteran White House correspondent Thomas.

"On behalf of the House of Representatives, we salute Helen Thomas," said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. "You could have gotten [this award] over and over again, Helen."

"One of the greatest reporters in the history of the republic," Kennedy called her.

Thomas is definitely a perfectionist. Two hours before her speech, she was hunched over on the stage of the VIP room, a red pen in hand, rereading her remarks. ("To the members of Congress, I say, do the right thing. Pass laws that are fair to everyone. . . . To the media, I say, let's follow the truth wherever it leads us, and let the chips fall where they may . . .")

She's been attending these dinners since the late '40s. She was president of the Women's National Press Club in 1959.

"I've picked the greatest profession in the world," Thomas said. "There is nothing more indispensable to a democracy than a free press."

Spoken like an old pro, still idealistic after all these years.

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