By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 23, 2007 2:36 PM
The annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner is always surreal -- a boozy scrum of frenetic bonhomie among Washington's top news-makers and news-gatherers, ostensibly a well-deserved respite from all the accumulated tension of their otherwise relentlessly adversarial relationship.
But I was struck by what seemed to be among the sentiments emanating from the head-table:
* That a has-been impressionist was a more appropriate choice for entertainment than the acerbic and brilliant political satirist who last year hurt some people's feelings.
* That the tragic Virginia Tech massacre required solemn observation and expressions of great respect, while the seemingly endless war that often claims as many victims in a day deserved virtually no mention at all.
* That a night full of journalists sucking up to their sources is not just defensible but actually honorable because of all the aggressive reporting that goes on every other day.
President Bush attended Saturday night's dinner but chose for the first time in his war-torn presidency to avoid making the obligatory humorous speech on the grounds that "it's been a tough week for a lot of folks, particularly the folks at Virginia Tech."
(One couldn't help contrast his new-found reticence with the time in March 2004 when he controversially narrated a slide show showing pictures of him looking under the Oval Office furniture and saying: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere.")
On Saturday night, Bush wasn't suggesting that the whole evening should be a downer -- "You know, we've got to learn to laugh in this town," he said. But then he introduced the night's headliner, "a talented and good man, Rich Little."
This is how Little launched one of the longest half-hours in show business history: "I want to tell you right off the top that I am not a political satirist," he said. "I'm an impersonator, basically. I do a lot of impressions, and some of them are politicians. You know, I'm a nightclub entertainer that tells a lot of dumb, silly, stupid jokes. You know?"
The night's biggest prize for defensiveness, however, went to the White House Correspondents Association's president, Steve Scully of C-Span. "I'd like for just a moment to talk . . . about this dinner, because it has received its fair share of criticism [from] those who question whether reporters and their sources should dine together at a night like this," Scully said. "Now our job is to question policies and look at events with a skeptical eye. And I have to tell you that one dinner will not change that. . . .
"So let today be an example of what is good about our democracy and our First Amendment. Let us be reminded that an adversary is not the same thing as an enemy, nor does an evening of civility mean we are selling out."
But from what I see, the critics of the dinner are not saying Washington journalists should hate their sources -- just hold their sources accountable. I'm quite sure the dinner would be forgiven if the media was seen to be doing its job the rest of the time.
A leading concern appears to be that in the Bush era, where spin and message control and confabulation have been taken to unprecedented new heights, the old rules aren't serving journalism or the public as well as they once did. Where once a general coziness with sources gained journalists valuable information they could impart to the public, now it is more likely to win them little more than a returned phone call full of obfuscation.
That's why the dinner rubs so many people the wrong way. It is increasingly widely seen as the celebration of a con -- by the conned.
Here is C-Span video of Scully, Bush and Little.Rove Blows
But first, the big news of the night: The Karl Rove Blow Up!
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post that "singer Sheryl Crow and 'Inconvenient Truth' producer Laurie David walked over to Table 92 at the Hilton Washington to chat with Karl Rove -- and the resulting exchange was suitably heated.
"'I am floored by what I just experienced with Karl Rove,' David reports. 'I went over to him and said, "I urge you to take a new look at global warming." He went zero to 100 with me. . . . I've never had anyone be so rude.'
"Rove's version: 'She came over to insult me and she succeeded.'
"Things got so hot that Crow stepped in to defuse the situation and then got into it with Rove herself. 'You work for me,' she told the presidential adviser, according to singed bystanders. 'No,' was his response. 'I work for the American people.'
"News of the dust-up filtered quickly through the room. Some witnesses said David was very aggressive with Rove; a shaken Crow later said that Rove was 'combative and unresponsive.'"
Anne Schroeder of Politico has a picture of the meeting of the minds. Schroeder quotes an anonymous witness who "came to Rove's defense: 'Laurie David was in his face, being very aggressive, (which was) really inappropriate for the setting. She was intentionally picking a fight so that she could get it written about. Crow came over, she was less aggressive, a little sheepish. Then David walked away. Then Crow left,' reported our source, who claimed to have no reason to side with Rove on the controversy, but considered what the women did to be, 'so wrong.'"
David and Crow post their own account of the incident on Huffingtonpost.com: "We asked Mr. Rove if he would consider taking a fresh look at the science of global warming. Much to our dismay, he immediately got combative. And it went downhill from there.
"We reminded the senior White House advisor that the US leads the world in global warming pollution and we are doing the least about it. Anger flaring, Mr. Rove immediately regurgitated the official Administration position on global warming which is that the US spends more on researching the causes than any other country.
"We felt compelled to remind him that the research is done and the results are in ( www.IPCC.ch). Mr. Rove exploded with even more venom. Like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum, Mr. Rove launched into a series of illogical arguments regarding China not doing enough thus neither should we. (Since when do we follow China's lead?) . . .
"In his attempt to dismiss us, Mr. Rove turned to head toward his table, but as soon as he did so, Sheryl reached out to touch his arm. Karl swung around and spat, 'Don't touch me.' How hardened and removed from reality must a person be to refuse to be touched by Sheryl Crow? Unphased, Sheryl abruptly responded, 'You can't speak to us like that, you work for us.' Karl then quipped, 'I don't work for you, I work for the American people.' To which Sheryl promptly reminded him, 'We are the American people.'"
Rove, it turns out, was the guest of the New York Times.
Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: "Just a few feet from the podium, Rove was found at The New York Times table, in discussions with the likes of D.C. Bureau Chief Dean Baquet and columnist Maureen Dowd. When asked why the paper, which often battles the White House, chose to invite Rove, Dowd said, 'I don't do the inviting anymore.'
"Reporter Jim Rutenberg said he had asked Rove because 'we cover him and I just asked.' Was he getting any scoops from the White House insider? 'He's telling us everything,' Rutenberg joked."
So how did Rove's host cover the blow up? Rutenberg writes his account in today's New York Times as if he hadn't dished with the man at all. He acknowledges that Rove was a guest of the Times, then writes: "Mr. Rove did not respond to a request for comment on the women's Internet posting on Sunday."
Rutenberg did, however, get a blistering response from the White House: "Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman said, 'We have respect for the opinions and passion that many people have for climate change.' But, Mr. Fratto said, 'I wish the same respect was afforded to the president.'
"He accused Ms. Crow and Ms. David of ignoring the president's environmental initiatives, like pushing for alternative fuels, and for 'going after officials with misinformed assertions at a social dinner.'
"'It would be better,' Mr. Fratto said, 'to set aside Hollywood histrionics and try to help with the problem instead of this baseless, and tasteless, finger pointing.'"
But what did Rove tell his tablemates from the New York Times afterwards? Was it all off the record? What's the point of sitting next to a newsmaker if you can't quote him when he makes news?The Little Death
Little's painful shtick was mostly composed of lame impressions of long-dead political and entertainment figures, intermixed with jokes about such things as choking smurfs and the difference between asteroids and hemorrhoids. Easily the worst part was a Little ditty, sung as refrain in between impressions: "Tell a little joke/ and we're going to poke/ a lot of fun./ Poke a lot of fun at Wash-ing-ton."
David Carr writes in the New York Times: "Rich Little, the Carson-era comedian and impersonator, was wheeled in to help the audience forget last year's debacle when Stephen Colbert opened both barrels on all parties, briefly bringing the proceedings some cultural relevance
"Because he failed to acknowledge both the propriety and the primacy of the establishment press, Mr. Colbert bombed inside the room, drawing disapproving looks from all quarters and little initial coverage. But in the days following his performance, the normally prosaic C-Span feed of the event was viewed approximately 2.7 million times in just 48 hours on YouTube.
"This year, the correspondents' association decided to regain custody of the event. . . .
"Mr. Little, a one-man time machine, obliged by dialing the room back decades to a time when Uncle Walter told us that's the way it is, Johnny Carson tucked us all in and a bit about Richard Nixon singing 'My Way' was considered naughty fun. . . . 'And you thought Colbert was bad,' Mr. Little said after one particularly acute miss."
Here's how Little wrapped things up: "Thank you very much. I appreciate your reaction.. . . . And you know? It's good to laugh. I know we're going through troubled times right now, but you gotta laugh."
Greg Mitchell and Joe Strupp write for Editor and Publisher: "Some in the crowd walked out in the middle of the routine -- far more than left during Colbert's performance last year."
My fellow washingtonpost.com blogger Mary Ann Akers apparently hangs out with a more charitable crowd than I do.
"Most people who endured Rich Little's performance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night had the same reaction . . . bless his heart," she writes. As in, "bless his heart for enthusiastically saying 'yes' and agreeing to perform after so many others said 'no thanks.' . . .
"This year's lead organizer of the event, WHCA President Steve Scully of C-SPAN, went after a long list of big dogs. But they all turned him down. . . .
"'Regardless of what you think of Rich Little, he was really excited to do this,' Scully said."
I ran into Little and Scully at the Bloomberg after-party, and I had to ask:
Rich, tough crowd, huh? "They were pretty good," he said.
Scully, probably seeing the sour, glazed look on my face then chimed in: "The president said he was hysterical!" And not just that: "Laura Bush laughed so hard her neck hurt!"
Little liked that: "I gave Laura Bush whiplash!" he said.
"He was phenomenal," Scully insisted.
But Scully's successor as association president, ABC News's Ann Compton, seemed abundantly aware of how badly Little stank up the joint. "Next year," she announced grandly, "no entertainment, a 45-minute dinner, and one big party!"The One Happy Moment and the One Funny Moment
White House press secretary Tony Snow entered the room to a standing ovation, his first public appearance since being diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer.
Snow then had the honor of setting up the only funny moment of the evening: A David Letterman video of Top Ten George W. Bush Moments.A Question of Tragedies
Comedian and satirist Harry Shearer (who was a guest of The Washington Post and Newsweek) writes for Huffingtonpost.com that "the Pitcher-in-Chief threw a curve, if not a scroogie. He would not, he announced, 'try to be the funny guy tonight', because we'd all had a tough week, owing to the tragedy in Blacksburg. Even though he was preceded by a Letterman Top Ten video montage of goofy and embarrassing Presidential moments, and followed by Rich Little, President Bush desisted from the usual jocularity, out of, one was expected to conclude, respect.
"But it's okay to crack jokes every other year while we're at war and hundreds of young people the same age as the VT students are dying in Iraq directly because of the decisions of the man doing standup? If this Presidential moment wasn't crass and cheesy, wrapping his reluctance to engage in the ritual inside a sanctimonious concern for--the sentiments of the families who couldn't care less what was going on at the Hilton, the delicate feelings of those in the room who'd had to work in Virginia this week?--then I don't know crass and cheesy.
"And I think I do. "
William Triplett of Variety found a source of unexpected wisdom in a celebrity guest, actress Kerry Washington: "Washington was ambivalent about the evening. She felt good about 'celebrating a free press, which we need, but I was a little disappointed and shocked that no one talked about the (Iraq) war.' Careful to emphasize respect and concern for the Virginia Tech tragedy, Washington added, 'It's interesting that the president could be funny last year with many soldiers dying overseas, but couldn't be this year.'"The Ater-Parties
Libby Copeland and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post about the after-parties: "Reporters and politicians and Hill staffers stand shoulder to shoulder, gossiping and sweating and sipping and spilling and leering.
"This is the brain of Washington. And it is drunk."Bush Scandals
Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Campaigning in 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush would repeatedly raise his right hand as if taking an oath and vow to 'restore honor and integrity' to the White House. He pledged to usher in a new era of bipartisanship. . . .
"Now, with fewer than two years left of his second term, the Bush administration is embroiled in multiple scandals and ethics investigations. The war in Iraq still rages. Bush's approval ratings are hovering in the mid-30s. And Democratic-Republican relations have seldom been more rancorous. . . .
"What ever happened to restoring honor and dignity?
"'From the very beginning, this administration emphasized loyalty over competence. And at some point, that catches up with you,' said Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University. He said the increase in scandals and investigations also reflects the 'natural decay' that happens late in a second presidential term as many experienced people have already left and those remaining start focusing on their financial futures."
Here's the AP's rundown of Bush appointees who left under a cloud or face conflict-of-interest allegations.
Laurent Lozano writes for AFP: "The president's men have fallen on hard times."Gonzales Watch
Bush was positively enthusiastic about embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a brief press availability this morning: "The Attorney General went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job," Bush said, making him possibly the only person in Washington who felt that way.
"And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the Attorney General broke no law, did no wrongdoing. And some senators didn't like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could. This is an honest, honorable man, in whom I have confidence."
Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "Publicly, the White House was standing by its A.G. One White House adviser (who asked not to be ID'ed talking about sensitive issues) said the support reflected Bush's own view that a Gonzales resignation would embolden the Dems to go after other targets--like Karl Rove. 'This is about Bush saying, "Screw you",' said the adviser, conceding that a Gonzales resignation might still be inevitable. The trick, said the adviser, would be to find a graceful exit strategy for Bush's old friend."
Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: "Perhaps what we witnessed [Thursday] was in fact a tour de force, a home run for the president's overarching theory of the unitary executive. . . .
"For six impressive hours, the attorney general embodied the core principles that he is not beholden to Congress, that the Senate has no authority over him, and that he was only there as a favor to them in their funny little fact-finding mission."
Margaret Talev and Ron Hutcheson write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Senate Judiciary Committee's grilling Thursday of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was rich in human drama but failed to resolve Congress' central questions.
"After thousands of pages of documents and hours of testimony from Justice Department officials, it remains unknown who in the Bush administration conceived the plan to fire eight U.S. attorneys and why. . . .
"Absent another explanation, the signs point to the White House and, at least in some degree, to the president's political adviser, Karl Rove.
"David Iglesias, the former New Mexico U.S. attorney and one of the eight fired last year, said investigating the White House's role is the logical next step - one that would follow existing clues about Rove's involvement.
"'If I were Congress, I would say, `If the attorney general doesn't have answers, then who would?' There's enough evidence to indicate that Karl Rove was involved up to his eyeballs.'
"Iglesias said another clue that the White House may have been the driving force is the relative lack of Justice Department documentation for the firings in the 6,000 pages of documents turned over to Congress.
"'If you want to justify getting rid of someone, you should have at least some paper trail,' Iglesias said. 'There's been a remarkable absence of that. I'm wondering if the paper trail is at the White House.' "
Jason McLure writes for the Legal Times: "Gonzales' testimony revealed a department that has lowered the traditional walls erected between the White House, Main Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Offices in the field, former Justice officials say. And that could have a profound impact on the way the department carries out its business in the future. . . .
"[T]he hearing threw light on a policy that appears to have allowed the Justice Department and the White House to become much more closely linked structurally during the Bush administration -- in a way perhaps unmatched since the Watergate era. The change was highlighted during questioning late in the day by [Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon] Whitehouse, himself a former U.S. Attorney and the most junior member of the panel.
"Whitehouse highlighted two memos -- one written in 1994 by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and another written in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft -- that defined the channels through which the White House and the Justice Department could discuss criminal investigations.
"Reno's memo, issued on Sept. 29, 1994, and addressed to Lloyd Cutler, then special counsel to the president, said, 'Initial communications between the White House and the Justice Department regarding any pending Department investigation or criminal or civil case' could take place only among a handful of senior officials. . . .
"[T]hat memo merely memorialized Justice Department tradition. 'The Clinton policy is not really a Clinton policy,' says Nicholas Gess, who was an associate deputy attorney general under Reno. 'It's a historical policy going back as far as anyone remembers.' . . .
"But the policy was changed in April 2002, when Ashcroft issued a revised memo dramatically expanding the number of employees at both the White House and the Justice Department who could discuss criminal investigations. . . .
"At the Justice Department, the memo expanded the number of officials authorized to have these discussions from three to more than 30. And at the White House, it expanded the figure from four to more than 100. Under Ashcroft and now Gonzales, junior political aides -- at both Justice and the White House -- have had authorization to discuss ongoing criminal matters."Oversight Watch
Rep. Henry Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has gone into overdrive.
On Friday, the committee announced a meeting to be held Wednesday, to consider four subpoenas for:
"* The testimony of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice regarding the fabricated claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger and other issues;
"* The testimony of former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card regarding the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's covert identity and White House security procedures;
"* RNC documents related to possible violations of the Presidential Records Act and the Hatch Act by White House officials;
"* Contacts between the White House and MZM, a federal contractor implicated in bribery charges."
And this morning, the committee disclosed the following: "Current and former employees of the White House Security Office have reported to Chairman Waxman that there was a systemic failure at the White House to follow procedures for protecting classified information. According to the security officers, the White House regularly ignored security breaches, prevented security inspections of the West Wing, and condoned mismanagement of the White House Security Office."Opinion Watch
Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "President Bush has skipped the funerals of the troops he sent to Iraq. He took his sweet time to get to Katrina-devastated New Orleans. But last week he raced to Virginia Tech with an alacrity not seen since he hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo's end-of-life medical care. Mr. Bush assumes the role of mourner in chief on a selective basis, and, as usual with the decider, the decisive factor is politics. Let Walter Reed erupt in scandal, and he'll take six weeks to show his face -- and on a Friday at that, to hide the story in the Saturday papers. The heinous slaughter in Blacksburg, Va., by contrast, was a rare opportunity for him to ostentatiously feel the pain of families whose suffering cannot be blamed on the administration."
Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "There are two ways to describe the confrontation between Congress and the Bush administration over funding for the Iraq surge. You can pretend that it's a normal political dispute. Or you can see it for what it really is: a hostage situation, in which a beleaguered President Bush, barricaded in the White House, is threatening dire consequences for innocent bystanders -- the troops -- if his demands aren't met."
Krugman concludes, however, that: "Confronting Mr. Bush on Iraq has become a patriotic duty.
"The fact is that Mr. Bush's refusal to face up to the failure of his Iraq adventure, his apparent determination to spend the rest of his term in denial, has become a clear and present danger to national security. Thanks to the demands of the Iraq war, we're already a superpower without a strategic reserve, unable to respond to crises that might erupt elsewhere in the world. And more and more military experts warn that repeated deployments in Iraq -- now extended to 15 months -- are breaking the back of our volunteer military.
"If nothing is done to wind down this war during the 21 months -- 21 months! -- Mr. Bush has left, the damage may be irreparable."Cartoon Watch