She came, they saw, she conquered.
Marla Maples, the face that launched a thousand tabloids, made her first public outing in months at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' dinner at the Washington Hilton. In a dazzling display of Blondeness, the centerpiece of l'affaire Trump eclipsed everyone, including the First Couple, the Cabinet, mayors, generals, administration bigwigs -- in short, anyone with real or imagined claims to power in Washington.
"Will you introduce me to Marla?" panted White House speech writer Ed McNally, who had weaseled through the crush of paparazzi to clutch the arm of her escort, Time magazine reporter Jack McDonald. "I wrote tonight's speech," he explained.
Welcome to Powertown, Marla.
The dinner, attended by 2,500 movers and shakers, is designed as a night for the White House press and their sources to eat, drink and schmooze off the record. It's also the scene of a friendly competition among reporters to see who can invite the most powerful, interesting or eye-catching guest. This year McDonald trumped the field with a bird in hand worth at least two Bushes.
Maples, after weeks in seclusion, was mobbed by photographers from the moment she stepped into the Time-Warner reception at the hotel before the dinner. Last year, Time had 20 people at the reception ("It was embarrassing," moaned an editor). This year, 200 people crammed into the room and pretended not to watch the door.
"I was trampled so the photographers could get to her," said actor Ron Silver, a guest of People magazine who was left in the wake, along with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan and National Democratic Committee Chairman Ron Brown, among others. "I mean, please. Scalia is going to be here another 30 years. He's making major decisions. They went right over him. Ron Brown. Over him. What kind of of country is this?"
It's the kind of country, Ron, where a photo op is sexier than a chat about tort reforms. The kind of country where "Saturday Night Live" comedian Dennis Miller, entertaining at the dinner, could make a crack about Trump, saying "Kidding, Marla, kidding. I love him, too," followed by "I think she should have asked Diane Sawyer if Mike Nichols was the best sex she's ever had."
Maples, wearing a black Fabrice dinner suit, was picture perfect: genuinely gorgeous, perfect hair and charming despite nonstop flashbulbs. She was, to the disappointment of some, capable of multi-syllable words, many in the same sentence. Anna Perez, press secretary to Barbara Bush, found herself in the middle of the fray and, in a vain attempt to stay out of the spotlight, grabbed sunglasses from McNally, who by this time was circling around the 26-year-old beauty like the Trump Shuttle waiting for clearance to land.
But why Washington, Marla? Why the White House correspondents?
"It's a very elegant affair," she smiled (perfect teeth). "I felt this would be a chance for me to meet people more one-on-one and express who I am. The president is here. Mrs. Bush. What better environment than this?"
Exactly the point made by Marla's escort, a newcomer in the Washington office without any of his colleague's big-name contacts. McDonald tracked down Marla's mom, Ann Ogletree, in Georgia, sent flowers, called once a week and wrote a letter explaining why Marla should make her debut at the black-tie dinner. "I stressed good behavior," he said. Mom was convinced; Marla soon followed and McDonald had the scoop of the year.
The Mom End Run follows the tradition of Mike Kelly, former Baltimore Sun reporter who nabbed Fawn Hall (by calling her mom) and Donna Rice in back-to-back years by convincing them it was a good opportunity to greet the fourth estate in a more civilized fashion.
"I told them that when the boys and girls of the press put on their gowns and tuxedos, they act like grown-ups," said Kelly, now a freelance writer in Chicago. "These dinners are not press conferences. People ask questions, but they're polite about it."
Former White House speech writer Peggy Noonan, for example, didn't ask any embarrassing questions when she met Marla. Neither did Dorothy Bush LeBlond, the president's daughter. Both attended the dinner as guests of the New York Times, invited by reporter Maureen Dowd, who also snagged OMB Director Dick Darman, White House image man Sig Rogich, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and Jesse Jackson. ("Captain Jackson's at the same table," said Kemp. "Power table. It's a power table.")
"For a while she was inviting virtually everyone she saw," said Howell Raines, New York Times Washington bureau chief. "No one says no to Maureen."
"I think of it as insider trading," said Dowd. "I literally started asking 11 months, 3 weeks before the dinner. I didn't go to my junior prom, so I have this obsession with dressing up and having a good time at black-tie events."
The Washington Post snagged Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar and Barbara Bush's stepmother, Mrs. Willa Martin Pierce. The New York Post brought New York Mayor David Dinkins, who took advantage of a one-on-one with Kemp. "He made the mistake of saying to me, 'Is there anything you need?' " said Dinkins, "and I said, 'As a matter of fact, I do.' "
Said Mayor Marion Barry, who was invited as the guest of the Washington Times, "Most mayors don't get the chance to be in this kind of crowd. These are some of the most powerful folks in the world. Collectively, they're probably more powerful than anybody else. A lot of ink. Ink by the barrel."
People magazine brought Angie Dickinson and "thirtysomething" actress Polly Draper. USA Today played host to Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau.
"There's one sure way to sneak into a hall: follow Marla Maples," said Pauley. "I was kind of in her backwash and there was not much happening."
If Maples was the sensation, President Bush was still the star of the event, which honors the president and First Lady. Traditionally, past presidents do not attend the dinner, and as for former First Ladies ... well, Mercury is retrograde, so it really wasn't a good time to travel, anyway.
Bush opened with a few Marlin fat jokes, which momentarily confused the crowd. ("Marla? Oh, Marlin.") Marlin Fitzwater, that is, the newly svelte White House press secretary.
"We originally wanted to launch the Hubble telescope a year ago to take a group shot of Marlin," said Bush. "No, he looks great, though."
And Marlin, he said, thought the president was a little odd when he announced the June summit while standing next to Michael Jackson.
"I told him, 'I'm not taking the rap for this Michael Jackson thing,' " Bush explained. "Rose Garden. Sunglasses. No coat. No tie. No expression. Bored. A little confused. I just figured he was just another White House correspondent."
Dennis Miller, following the president, greeted Barry from the podium with: "Had a wacky couple months there, didn't you, Mayor?" and then went on to German reunification.
"I view this in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis reconciliation," he said. "I never really enjoyed any of their previous work, and I'm not sure I need to see any of their new stuff."
As he watched the Marla media horde sweep out of the reception, Time editor Donald Morrison summed up the evening.
"I thought that when the Reagan era was over, we were going to start paying more attention to the real problems facing this country," said Morrison. "I'm relieved to find out that we still have time for fun."