Before meeting the press, they met green-room attendant 'Mr. Aly'
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 6:41 PM
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."
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."