President Reagan got right to the point at the 75th Alfalfa Club dinner at the Capital Hilton Saturday night. "For months now everybody's been wanting to know what George Bush told me about the Iran-contra thing," he said, "so tonight I'm going to tell you ... I don't remember."
Washingtonians traditionally rib themselves and each other at this private, annual no-press-no-women-allowed jokefest for Big Wigs Only, and this year was no exception. The keynote speaker was former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who was driven out of his job in a flurry of bitterness early last year, and whose appearance Saturday seemed to say that, one way or another, you can always make a comeback in this town.
Regan took the opportunity to make a few jabs at his former tormentors, including Nancy Reagan, who many say was largely responsible for organizing his ouster. Referring to the presidency early in his speech, he quipped: "Unfortunately, the rules of the Alfalfa prevent me from personally giving the incumbent her due." Later Regan made a phone company joke that referred to "people hanging up on me" -- an apparent reference to reports last year that he had hung up the phone on the first lady.
Later in his speech Regan said it would be a good idea to install CNN monitors "in every office so Cabinet members and other appointees can be the second to know when they're fired." Regan had learned of his own ouster not from the president but from then national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci, who had heard a report of it on television. Carlucci,now secretary of defense, was in the audience.
As for "the role I played during my service at the White House," Regan said, "I'm pleased to set the record straight. I ran the place."
Regan, who got some help writing his speech from comedian Mort Sahl, went on to take a jab at the assembled 650 Alfalfa members and their guests -- all male, mid-fifties and up in age, almost all white. "It's a humbling experience to stand here before hundreds of eminent men who are willing to admit publicly that they're here because they haven't got the clout to get a Super Bowl ticket."
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), the new president of the Alfalfa Club, got a big laugh in his speech with a promise to "get younger people into the club. I mean, look around. I won't say this crowd is old, but its idea of safe sex is not having a heart attack." Later Bentsen put humor aside for a minute and made a touching tribute to the president for his "good-natured and gracious ... good humor." "We all know this is your last appearance here as president," he said. "And I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that we are genuinely going to miss you." He wished Reagan "the very best in the years ahead," and everyone stood and applauded.
But one subject was apparently too hot for even this rowdy band of jokesters. There was no mention of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, whose involvement in the $1 billion Iraqi pipeline project is under investigation and making headlines across the nation. Meese was there Saturday night, seated at the head table.
"Too sensitive for jokes," said one guest at the dinner. Meese brushed past reporters on his way out of the hotel later, smiling tightly and declining comment.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the outgoing Alfalfa Club president, who was once the husband of Elizabeth Taylor, said in his speech that the Reagans will be returning to California next year, then turned to Reagan and added, "Mr. President, you've had some great luck in Hollywood ... I wish I could say the same."
The audience included senators and Cabinet members, generals and tycoons, Supreme Court justices, a pundit or two, and one presidential candidate.
"Al Haig's here tonight," said Bent -- sen. "Things going that well in Iowa, Al?"
The club's sole purpose is to hold a dinner every year (Saturday it was lobster navarin, filet mignon perigueux and bouquetierre of vegetables) and have fun. Last year there was a brouhaha when Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) made a joke about Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-Md.) panties and it turned out later she didn't think it was funny. He apologized.
The sex angle this year mostly involved Gary Hart. "I never believed the Donna Rice story," Regan said. "I thought it was a cynical attempt to humanize Hart." And from the president: "The other night I had a dream that Gary Hart was president, and he was meeting with Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher told him, 'I want your hands off Nicaragua, your hands off Afghanistan and your hands off my knee.' "
Beyond that, there were more jokes about Bush ("He could organize a religious group, Jehovah's Bystanders" -- Regan), Gorbachev ("When I told him we should put our cards on the table he took out his Visa and his MasterCard" -- Reagan), and the campaign ("1988 is going to be a real horse race; the only question is which end is going to win" -- Bentsen).
The president spoke last. "Before I came tonight, Nancy said, 'Do you really have to attend that purposeless event? ... ' I said, 'You mean the Democratic convention?' But I finally made it out of the house and I'm delighted to be with the boys ... Lloyd, while you're here, I want you to know I'm very angry with the Congress. I've had a colon operation. I've had a prostate operation. And now I picked up the damn budget during my State of the Union and have to have a hernia operation."
The president stuck it to his former chief of staff. "This hasn't been made public, but just to show that there were no hard feelings, Don gave Howard Baker a stock tip; he called Howard last October 18th and told him to put everything he owned in the market." Baker, who replaced Regan as chief of staff, introduced Regan Saturday night -- pleasantly enough, but not elaborately.
"But a lot has happened since you left, Don," the president went on. "I suppose you heard about the Gary Hart thing? I notice Hart keeps deflecting reporters' questions by saying, 'It's none of your business.' Why didn't we think of that?"
Reagan wound up with the truth-is-funnier-than-fiction observation that "on 'Good Morning America' the morning after George's famous interview, Sam Donaldson called Dan Rather arrogant. And so it goes in Washington ... "
Warner jabbed at Bentsen in his speech: "When Lloyd gave up the breakfast club it could be said he suffered a Big Pac Attack."
Then Bentsen spoke. "Mr. President, George Will said that you were lazy. I don't know. All I know is whenever I call your personal number at the White House I get the recording, 'This is a nonworking number.' ... Mrs. Reagan was to Don Regan what Silkworms are to Gulf shipping ... And, of course, John Warner is here ... John is a Virginian and a true Southern gentleman. The other evening he was severely beaten fighting for a woman's honor. She decided to keep it."
Bentsen on the candidates: Pierre du Pont has "a first name like a French waiter and a last name like a toxic dump." Al Gore is so young he dreams of "world peace and an apartment of his own." Texans laugh at Paul Simon wearing "a bow tie with chaps."
Then came Regan. He said he was at the president's side in Reykjavik when Reagan told Gorbachev total nuclear disarmament would upset conservatives in Congress. Gorbachev advised dissolving Congress and suspending elections. Reagan exclaimed he couldn't do that. "But I kicked him under the table and said, 'Listen to him. He's trying to help you, for crying out loud!' "
"As far as the Democrats go," said Regan, "their front-runner is Jesse Jackson. You remember: 'I have a scheme.' He's a reverend. So is Pat Robertson ... These two guys could give God a bad name."
As for the Republicans: "Their front-runner is George Bush, an outstanding man. He hasn't revealed these qualities yet because he doesn't want to peak too early ... Then there's Senator Dole, who, at Bush's urging, published his financial condition. If elected, Bob's going to put the country in his wife's name."
New members initiated at this year's dinner were Sen. H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.); Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot; AT&T Chairman James E. Olson; John G. Medlin Jr., chairman and president of First Wachovia Corp. in Winston-Salem, N.C.; and Samuel B. Sterrett, chief judge of the U.S. Tax Court.
Others at the dinner included Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio); former secretary of state Henry Kissinger; retired general William C. Westmoreland; Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III; former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger; J. Patrick Hayes, managing director emeritus of the Washington Performing Arts Society; national security adviser Gen. Colin L. Powell; Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), the incoming vice president of the Alfalfa Club, who will be president next year.
Meanwhile, down in Trader Vic's and later in a private suite upstairs, the Alfalfa Sprouts, a small group of Alfalfa wives, was having its own meeting.
Jeanne Tappan, wife of David Tappan Jr., chairman of Fluor Corp., said Regan "had a twinkle in his eye ... it's going to be a success."
The Sprouts said their husbands are not usually overeager to share the night's jokes with their wives. "They're like little boys," said one Sprout. "They have secrets until we get them home."
Although the press wasn't allowed to cover the dinner, The Washington Post obtained inside reports of the event from reliable sources.
Moira Mulligan contributed to this report.