To call "The "President's Dinner" a fund-raiser is woefully inadequate. It's the GOP's Big Enchilada: part senior prom, part parade float. A Brink's truck ready to party.
"It's an incredible, overwhelming event," gushed New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato last night. "I think it's a spectacular. You can get to take it all for granted. You can become a little bit jaded, but just look at this!"
Who could miss it? The drab innards of the Convention Center had been transformed into a Washington-by-night illuminated fantasy. Four huge sets -- the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial -- dominated the four walls; a confluence of top Republicans, from President Bush on down, and four giant video screens dominated the rest of the vast room.
This annual black-tie extravaganza is the party's largest fund-raiser and last night, adding to the fun, was also a celebration of the president's 66th birthday. More than 3,600 party faithful flew in from across the country, forked over a minimum of $1,500 apiece, and added almost $7 million to election-year campaign coffers of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"The people that come from out of town sure seem to enjoy them," said Arizona Sen. John McCain. "I think Washington is a very intriguing place to a lot of people who don't live and work here. And I think they like to see the president and all that kind of routine."
McCain (who is not running for reelection this year "but from the looks of the take, I wish I was") was wearing a blue "Senate" ribbon -- not to be confused with the blue "House" or "Cabinet" ribbons. No name tags (tacky), just ribbons.
The idea, said New Hampshire Rep. Bob Smith, is "to mingle with all the guests so they get some recognition for all their support."
While the crowd waited for Team GOP to arrive, the half-dozen photo stations that filled the lobby before dinner did a brisk business. Guests could get a 5 by 7 picture ($10), four wallet shots ($10), a 11 by 14 ($35) or an 8 by 10 shot (unframed $17, framed $55) with the caption "George Bush. The President's Dinner. June 12, 1990. Washington, D.C."
Then it was upstairs for the Pledge of Allegiance led by D.C. mayoral candidate Maurice Turner, the National Anthem sung by Dixie Carter of "Designing Women," seafood terrine, filet of beef and rousing speeches by those with enough clout to get a seat at one of the four head tables with the president and former senator Howard Baker, the dinner chairman; House Minority Leader Bob Michel; Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole; and Vice President Dan Quayle.
Dole told the audience the Senate had one birthday present for the president now -- a vote earlier in the day to sustain the Amtrak bill veto -- and three presents to come: a constitutional amendment to outlaw burning of the American flag, and Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
President Bush responded with typical ease. "I understand that some of you circulated a petition complaining that the only reason I was invited to speak tonight is that I'm Barbara Bush's husband," he teased the crowd.
Rallying the audience with promises of greater successes in the fall, Bush also stopped to acknowledge the one GOP official missing from the dinner, Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater, recovering from treatment for a brain tumor.
"He's a real pro and I can't wait till he's back full-time in the saddle again, leading the party to more victories in the future."
After a toast to the president and a semi-rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" sung by the assembled -- but not in unison -- Bush was presented with what appeared to be a "Points of Light" electronic birthday card and a surprise from composer Marvin Hamlisch.
After trying to cope with two faulty microphones ("Why do I think we have a Democratic sound manager?"), Hamlisch introduced a song written especially for the president, "One Song," which he called a tribute to Bush's past year. "It acknowledges our differences but affirms our global unity." And then another surprise: pop star Whitney Houston and the 95 members of New York's La Guardia High School Concert choir to sing it.
It sounded very sincere. No beat. The perfect ending to a Republican night.