The ties were black, the shirts were white, and the ideologies ranged everywhere in between last night as Washington's political tribes came together at the Georgetown Club to honor one of their own, veteran columnist Robert Novak, on his 48th birthday at a surprise all-male roast.
"It's a plot to destory my credibility as a reporter," said the prince of darkness, as Novak is known among his colleagues and sources. The clearly surprised Novak had come to the dinner thinking it was a black-tie affair being given by his co-columnist Roland Evans for Winston Churchil III.
"This is the story of America," said U.S. trade negotiator Robert S. Strauss when it was his turn to roast Novak. "Where else but in America could a little, cheap, undersized, unattractive fellow with no redeeming qualities grow up and join Roland Evans and 20 years later still be a little, cheap, undersized unattractive fellow with no redeeming qualities?"
"This is the story of America," said James Doyle of Newsweek looking out at the sea of tuxedos and the remains of the veal scallopini. "There are no balcks here, no women and three Democrats...."
Actually, it was a Washington story, as Novak's colleagues, column subjects and sources roasted their prince, a term reflecting the swarthy looks, somber expression, dire predictions, irascible temper and conservative politics of the co-author of that peculiar morning institution known as Evans and Novak.
Since the column began in 1963, it has been syndicated across the country, and both Evans and Novak make frequent appearances as television commentators, have begun a newsletter and generally hold forth as ultimate insiders of the American political scene.
"There's more clout in this room than there has been since Tongsun Park had dinner alone here," said Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.), one of the liberals there to uphold the banner of the left. "Let me make it clear that I come not to praise the prince of darkness but to bury the son-of-a-bitch," Udall said, in one of the more genial and less unprintable references of the evening.
Rival columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover offered a duet ("You're the prophet Jack Kemp's waited for, the voice of doom the press is hated for... that old black magic called hype...) and Strauss expressed no doubt -- "I know you're as embarrassed to be here as I am," he said.
There was a senator there (Republican William Cohen of Maine), a cabinet head (James Schlesinger) and bureau chiefs, and expressionless, nameless men who introduced themselves as "a source of Novaks nine years ago."
At the cocktail party before the Novak roast, energy head Schlesinger said, "This is a crew of people brought together because they find him mutually objectionable."
Some of the practiced political voyeurs in the room marveled. "Most of these people have never been in the same room together," said one journalist there, as he looked among the ice cubes at Reps. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Udall; John Sears, Ronald Reagan's former campaign manager and a leader of his new campaign comittee, and Mark Shields, perennial Democratic political consultant.
Now that it is becoming a common practice to berate a man for his accomplishments on ceremonial occasions rather than to praise him, there was a definite sense of anticipation at the dinner last night. "There is lots of things that you can say humorously about someone that you couldn't say seriously," observed Udall, who had been Novak's target during his abortive presidential campaign.
And who had been given a place on the roster of roasters to wreak revenge. "It's often been said that Washington is a company town, but the fact that personal relationships transcend the political ones has much to do with continuity here," Udall said.
The dinner had been planned since last December by Washington lawyer Robert McCandless and political newsletter publisher Alan Baron. "I've known [Novak] for 11 years," McCandless said. "He's everybody's prince of darkness but he's much more to me, he's the evil genius."
Yesterday morning, McCandless said, people were still trying to get tickets to the dinner. "It's become very hot. People are kind of licking their chops over this."
And they were not disappointed.
Sears got the audience going when he got up to tell them how he had started to prepare some remarks about Novak. "But then I began to wonder," said the man described as the high prince of antipopulism, "why on erath should I prepare any remarks for as like Bob Novak?"
"It's always nice to know that you're well thought of by your friends," Novak said in response to the melee that had proceeded. "If the evening was not scintillating, it was long... But no matter how boring an evening may be, you always learn something. I always wondered what happened to Mo Udall," he said.
By midnight, the powerbrokers had wandered downstairs for coffee and brandy. "Of course there's a camaraderie here," said pollster Pat Caddell. "Everybody's been burned by Novak at one time or the other. It's the old Washington esprit de corps -- nobody knows what it's like except those who are there doing it."