President Ronald Reagan called it a "spring prom," and what with the earnest drinking and flirting that occurred between journalists and their sources at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night, he wasn't far off. Pretty dresses, black ties, a good band, but no prom queen -- unless you count dinner guest and Playboy subject Rita Jenrette. And a lot did.
But heads did manage to turn from her blond one during a phone call from Reagan. Normally the president speaks at this marathon evening, but Reagan was at Camp David recuprating from his gunshot wound.
"I hope you don't mind," he said in the call that was amplified throughout the Washington Hilton ballroom to 1,800 guests, "but Daivd Stockman is making me call collect." Knowing laughter here.
Then outgoing correspondents' association president Bob pierpoint of CBS asked Reagan about the whereabouts of his high-profile secretary of state, Alexander Haig. He was one of the few government officials who'd stayed away from the circus.
"Wherever he is," laughed Reagan, "I have every confidence in him."
This annual dinner is the Washington press corps at its best and worst. Best, in that it's good for business: After the third Scotch and soda with White House aide A-1, reporters can develops rapport and pick up good leads. White House aide A-1, meanwhile, can leak to advantage.
And worst, as critics invariably point out, it's another incestuous example of journalists getting so close to their sources they can't see truth for the stroking of ego.
But there was one "best" example right as the first course began. Nancy Reagan said by phone to dinner guest Sarah Brady, wife of wounded White House press secretary James Brady, that "I remember those days in the hospital when you and I had many conversations, and we agreed that you and I had a bond that was very special, that nobody would break." Jim Brady is still at George Washington University Hospital, recuperating from a second round of brain surgery after being hit in the March 30 assassination attempt on the president.
"There isn't an hour when he isn't in our prayers," Ronald Reagan said. "Why don't we raise a glass to the Bear -- and Sarah." The 1,800 guests stood, glasses aloft.Sarah Brady was alone in the spotlight, with tears in her eyes.
After dinner, and before Vice President George Bush spoke, there was a break. Presumably it was to dance to Count Basie, but this being Washington, most everyone got into a tablehopping fever instead. Rita Jenrette, the guest of reporter Sarah McClendon, was extremely popular on this circuit.
"This is home turf for me," she said, having recently returned from Los Angeles where she says she'll play a reporter in a new movie called "The Romance," "Bob Dole [the Republican senator from Kansas] just came up to me and said, "Hi, Rita.'"
Jenrette is the estranged wife of former South Carolina congressman John Jenrette, who was convicted of bribery in the Abscam trials. Rita Jenrette hinted during the promotion of her playboy photographs that there would soon be a new Washington sex scandal, and she was as good as her word. Soon Lobbyist Paula Parkinson went public with confessions of liaisons with certain congressmen. So here's what Jenrette had to say about Parkinson:
"I know she's the kind of person who went with my husband during the five years we were married. You certainly understand what I mean by that. Those are the kind of women -- the groupies or lurkers -- who attend the functions and are very available for members of Congress. But I have no judgment to make of her."
Neighboring table No. 70, composed entirely of liberal males, was rubbernecking. New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg, concerned that his back was to Jenrette, asked a fellow dinner: "Do you have a mirror?"
Over at table 55, meanwhile, another recurring Washington activity was taking place: the government in power tweaking the government in exile.
"Your eminence!" said National Security Adviser Richard Allen to Henry Kissinger, his former boss and nemesis, "I would approach you on my kneecaps, but they're slightly worn tonight."
"He wanted to kiss my ring," Kissinger said a short while later, "but I didn't wear it."
One amusing outgrowth of this annual dinner is the competition among journalists for the most stellar guests. Bringing a top White House official proves to everyone that you have terrific sources, or at least one terrific source for one evening. Thus, political significants are asked months in advance and turn down as many as a dozen invitations afterward. Sometimes squabbles develop.
This year, for instances, there was infighting for Mike Deaver, White House deputy cheif of staff. Larry Barrett of Time magazine says he asked Deaver six weeks ago. But then Steve Neal of the Chicago Tribune asked him four weeks ago. Deaver accepted both, and some say a few more. This created havoc.
"But then Larry called and pulled out documentation that he'd asked him months ago," Neal explained Saturday night, "so he got him." Neal next went for Surgar Ray Leonard, but he couldn't make it.
Time magazine also weighted in with what some guests were calling the "Memorial Table." This consisted of lots of formers: former secretary of state Kissinger, former CIA director Richard Helms, former Jimmy Carter adviser Hedley Donovan.
Alas, some of the best catches -- presidential counselor Edwin Meese and White House chief of staff Jim Baker -- weren't even available to be asked. Still, other White House officials had shopped around. "I know some people who waited and then took the best invitation they could," said one highly placed administration official. "Verry slimy."
Vice President Bush finally spoke at about 10:30 p.m. Some of his selections included:
"About my exciting role over there," he said, meaning the White House, ". . . it's given me a phenomenal opportunity to meet and rub shoulders with the leaders of the free world -- Ed Meese, Jim Baker, Mike Deaver."
"You may remember the Wilderness Act. That was the act [Jim] Baker was caught committing in Yosemite Park."
There were also awards. The Merriman Smith Memorial went to John Palmer of NBC; second place went to Edward Walsh of The Washington Post. The Raymond Clapper Memorial was given to Nicholas Lemann of The Washington Post; second place went to John Fialka of The Washington Star. The Worth Bingham Memorial went to Jonathan Neumann and Ted Gup of The Washington Post and also Ralph Soda of Gannett. The Aldo Beckman Memorial was given to Frank Cormier of the Associated Press. In addition, the judges for the Raymond Clapper Memorial also gave a special citation to the late Jerry Landauer, reporter for the Wall Street Journal.