New York Mayor Ed Koch came to town last night. He applauded when actors did a few seconds of the off-Broadway show based on his memoirs. He milked the laughs as he went through his pro-Koch, anti-Washington shtick. And since he was only a couple of blocks from the White House, he threw in a little anti-terrorist advice for anyone who cared to listen.
"My wonderful memories of Washington never seem to fade," said the former New York congressman to the audience of 450, including District Mayor Marion Barry and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce, gathered at the National Press Building to celebrate both New York and the merger of the Washington and National press clubs.
"I remember going to National Airport to catch the shuttle back to New York," Koch said. "I remember going to Union Station to catch the train back to New York. I remember going to the bus station to catch a Greyhound back to New York. I remember hitchhiking on the Beltway, begging for a ride back to New York. Ah yes, it seems like only yesterday."
Then, after finishing six pages of well-received jokes, Koch abruptly shifted in tone. Saying "revenge is another word for punishment," he called on the United States to take military action against Lebanon, Syria and Iran in retaliation for the hijacking of the TWA jet and to "destroy the [Lebanese] city of Baalbek and Kharg Island and its major oil facilities in Iran."
Koch said these actions should be taken "notwithstanding the danger to the hostages who are now there or those who have been kidnaped."
Barry, who later said he was not ready to comment on the hostage crisis, stuck to jokes.
"I don't have the ingenuity to write a play," he told the audience. "I'd just like to be in one . . . I'm not a very good actor. I can't sing or dance -- I violate all the stereotypes."
What with all the jokes and the foreign policy and the "I New York" press kits scattered around the ballroom, the newly combined press clubs didn't get much attention.
But earlier in the day, members of the Washington Press Club, who remember that the WPC was founded in 1919 by women who were not allowed to join the National Press Club, spoke about the merger's historical resonance.
"I thought the resistance to the merger would come from the older members," WPC member Cheryl Arvidson, who served on the WPC's merger negotiating team. "I was amazed. Those were the people who spoke again and again and said, 'Our cause is gone. We have our memories, but we have no longer the reason to be.' "
The WPC's reason to be was clear two decades ago, when what members call The Great Balcony Fight was raging. Until 1964, women reporters were relegated to the balcony of the NPC's dining room during speaker luncheons, had no access to phones to call in their stories and were not allowed to ask questions. Even the right to sit in the balcony was something of a victory. For many years, they hadn't been allowed even to attend NPC functions.
But in 1970, the WPC admitted men as members and in 1971 the NPC admitted women. Now the clubs are one, renamed the National Press Club of Washington.
"Ten years ago, there were meetings to discuss a merger," said Susan Garland, the WPC's final president. "People weren't ready. It took a while until we realized, 'We're both doing the same kinds of things.' "
The WPC had held an annual "Salute to Congress" dinner, which drew large and impressive guest lists and head tables, but from day to day the clubs were competing for speakers, and most of them went to the larger and better-known NPC.
"The sad thing in the past several years has been that the most publicity we've received was when John Riggins passed out under the table at our congressional dinner," said Arvidson, "and even at that point a lot of people reported the wrong press club."
Both clubs were having trouble attracting new members and retaining old ones. The NPC began to renovate the National Press Building, at 14th and F streets NW, in 1982. Cost overruns and sluggish rentals forced the club to sell the building, while retaining title to the land. The club ledgers are still far from glowing, and adding the WPC's 500 members "in one gulp," as club president David Hess put it, can only help.
"It seems we've become so consumed with our work and with so many other drains on our time, the idea of a Fourth Estate watering hole just doesn't seem to have the same appeal," said Arvidson. "I don't know if everyone's out jogging and eating tofu, or if everyone's decided to get married and have children. But there's even a health club in the National Press Building -- that shows you how much things have changed."
The two clubs negotiated for a year before reaching an agreement. At issue were dues (the NPC charged three times as much as the WPC) and membership considerations. The WPC argued that the NPC's membership criteria were too loose and that the club allowed people with exessively tenuous relations with the press to join. The new constitution of the merged clubs has adjusted membership requirements, and WPC members will have their dues raised over a three-year period, rather than all at once.
Both clubs voted in favor of the merger by large margins, and now the only real reservations seem to stem from a vague sense of nostalgia.
"We're losing something that has been very important in our lives for many years," said Eileen Shanahan, a WPC member since 1959. "I think it's probably unrealistic to expect another generation to relate to your battles. I think there is a lot of surprise that it was as bad as it was, people between clenched teeth saying, 'No women will ever . . .' "