For 41 years now, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce has hopped aboard a special Amtrak train and headed for the pretty standard affair of fruit cups and congressmen they call their annual Washington dinner.
This year, there was Sen. Harrison Williams.
"You know," said the New Jersey Democrat, the sole senator implicated in the FBI's bribery "sting" operation, "two or three weeks ago one newspaper and then a few more were speculating that I might be running for governor. This went on for two or three days, and it occurred to me that there should be some way to still this speculation.
"Somehow, I think I've overdone it."
The senator's dinner appearance created an uproar last night that the 1,500 Chamber of Commerce members hadn't seen at this event in years. Cameras, spotlights and notebooks seemed to pop from everywhere in the Sheraton-Washington ballroom. At one point, hotel guards had to lead a troop of reporters from the dais as they crushed around Williams and his first course.
"I'm particularly pleased," Williams dead-panned, "that so much of the media is here to hear about New Jersey."
As chamber vice president Gerald Hall put it: "The last time we had a big wing-ding was when Sen. Albert Hawkes condemned Franklin Roosevelt. Something about how he'd be glad to jump on his grave. Got a lot of press coverage."
William was the featured speaker of the dinner, which was something that had been planned long before an FBI undercover investigation implicated him this week in a $100 million titanium mine stock deal. The agency's probe also alleges that he boasted of his influence with the state's Casino Control Commission.
Last night, Williams refused to comment to reporters about the allegations.
"Listen, if we start this, we'll upset the chamber's dinner," he said, turning back to his plate. He was then asked about the reported videotaped evidence against him. "I have no reaction to any of that," he replied.
But in his after-dinner remarks to chamber members, about a third of whom stood and applauded when he came to the podium. Williams said that "my strength to endure these difficult times comes from the patience and support that you have given me . . . I am confident that I will be joining you again next year."
Before the dinner was a cocktail reception where it was nearly impossible to move. Normally, the talk at such events is about the kids or football. Last night, it was clearly about ABSCAM, the FBI's code name for its investigation. Sometimes, though , it was clearly not about ABSCAM.
"ABSCAM?" echoed Bruce Geiger, a restaurant owner whose drinking companions swiftly scattered when they saw a reporter, "what is that?"
But then he took a different tack. "I don't think it makes our state look bad," he said. "We're used to Democrats of that ilk. They've been taking money for a long time. The Democratic party in New Jersey is corrupt. It's obvious."
But others expressed anger and disappointment saying the allegations surrounding Williams as well as Rep. Frank Thompson, the New Jersey Democrat also implicated in ABSCAM, had set the reputation of the state back years.
"We're embarrassed by it," said State Sen. Garrett Hagerdorn, a Republican from Bergen County.
"Everybody on the train coming down was saying, 'Oh damn, wouldn't you know it would be somebody from New Jersey,'" added Adrienne Zoble, the owner of an advertising firm.
But oh, there were jokes.
"Okay, guys," said one chamber member who had carefully removed his name tag, "give me the dough." As he said this, he tried to stick his hand in a companion's pocket, then began singing "The Shiek of Araby."
"What happened?" asked Daniel Dameo of Dameo Trucking as he was approached by a reporter. "What did I do wrong? Are you working for my wife?"
"This is Shiek Abdul," said Frank Murphy, a sales manager introducing a man who was actually James Nolan, a lawyer.
Even New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byren, in remarks from the podium, had some funny ones.
"I'm now a professor at Princeton University teaching a course entitled "What's Going on in New Jersey?'" he said. "The only problem I'm having is that the FBI won't release the reading list."
Sitting on his right was Williams, who laughed and laughed.