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Let Meet-Greet-and-Eat Season Begin

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Friday, February 15, 2008

We're dining with Miss America and MPAA chief Dan Glickman, and conversation is tricky at first because her job won't let her talk politics, while his means he can't share Oscar picks. So we chat about eating disorders (her crown-winning cause) and the Westminster Dog Show (the former Ag secretary adores beagles), which is pretty fun . . .

But then, whoa! Here's Chris Matthews looming over them, and suddenly everyone needs a photo of this grand media-politics-showbiz convergence. So as the flashes pop, we turn to another ordinary ink-stained wretch and talk shop over our filet mignon, until it's time to hush up for Rahm Emanuel's dirty-by-D.C.-standards stand-up routine.

So it went Wednesday at the Washington Press Club Foundation's annual Congressional Dinner. It was the kickoff of Beltway prom season -- the chummy, edgy, giddy, sometimes surreal banquets that bring the D.C. press corps and the politicians they cover together to break bread and crack wise.

Also, an increasing number of Hollywood types -- a trend that started with the big daddy of them all, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner (site of last year's Sheryl Crow - Karl Rove dust-up), but has trickled down to this smaller affair of 750.

The big star here is Ted Danson, who has come to share his concern about the health of our oceans, and who is looking like a lantern-jawed Cary Grant, with snow-white hair, chunky Gucci frames and a perfect tux. He is a guest of CQ, which has dumped a chunk of change on the swanky after-party (open bar, swing band, flaming desserts). But geeky scribes are also mobbing Clark Johnson, who plays the city editor of their dreams on "The Wire."

Miss America Kirsten Haglund, in a red cocktail dress and rhinestone crown atop Farrah tresses, tells us she had never entered a beauty pageant before last year. "Life just took its course," she says.

So much mingling to do! No one can stop talking to take their seats, so foundation prez Jesse Holland delivers his remarks over a rude, dull roar. Same for Matthews, stepping in as emcee at the last minute for an ailing Tony Snow (down with the flu, we're told). The Hill aide-turned-MSNBC star yakker riffs about meeting his wife, former WJLA anchor Kathleen Matthews, "at one of these dinners. . . . It took me three weeks to get a date with her." And then when he showed up, she sent her roommate downstairs to see "if I'd be preppy enough for her."

For once, Nancy Pelosi gets into the sassy, hazing spirit of these things. "I knew I had arrived in Washington when Helen Thomas played me in a skit at Gridiron. Remember that?" she coos. "I do." She blows a kiss to the veteran correspondent -- but zings: "That was Italian." (Get it? Kiss of death!)

Rep. Emanuel recalls his days in the Clinton White House. "Back then the words 'stimulus' and 'package' had a whole different meaning." Not to mention "a surge, a two-pronged thrust and a phased withdrawal." And how about that Fred Thompson? "He had an interesting take on No Child Left Behind. He married her." Emanuel pitches himself as the ideal VP candidate: "I've spent more time in the executive branch than Barack, and I've spent more time with Bill than Hillary."

Hard act to follow! But Sen. Mitch McConnell dryly scores with his line about the Dem race between "a New York senator who was born in Illinois, and an Illinois senator who was apparently born in a manger." Sen. John Cornyn makes his point more sharply, noting that the New York Times declined to attend this year. "Their table didn't go to waste. They just donated it to MoveOn.org at a discount." An "ohhhhhh" fills the room, followed by a lone hiss.

Dinner over, and we find Danson with former AP writer Tad Bartimus, winner of the night's lifetime achievement award, in convo about Hawaii's beaches (she lives there, he's an activist on the board of D.C. enviro group Oceana). What does Danson get out of attending this kind of thing?

"You know what it does," he says, "is it humanizes you." Meaning us journalists. "Chris Matthews -- I've thrown shoes at the TV screen when he's on. But it was really good to meet him."

THIS JUST IN . . .

* MSNBC correspondent David Shuster is spending two weeks on the bench for suggesting on-air last week that the Clinton campaign had "pimped out" Chelsea Clinton by having her call super- delegates. Network officials wouldn't say at the time how long he'd be off the airwaves, but yesterday announced he'll be back Feb. 22.

* Much excitement on the Internet with news -- leaked by director Doug Liman to MTV -- that Nicole Kidman will play Valerie Plame in the Warner Bros. movie version of the ex-spy's memoir. Variety reports that nothing is official. But hey, sounds like a no-brainer.

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