Bill Cosby's private jet has just landed at Reagan National. A driver is there to pick him up. On time, no problem. But where are the half-smokes?
Anybody who has done a page of homework on Cosby knows that he never comes to Washington without ordering off the menu at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Doesn't matter if he's here to serve as star attraction at a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser for Al Gore, which he did on Monday night. With Cos, the half-smokes are paramount. To be precise: one chili dog and several half-smokes. He phoned in the order himself before the plane left New York.
Weldon Latham, a savvy Washington lawyer and host of the Gore event, knows of Cosby's love affair with Ben's Chili Bowl. So he sends someone to fetch the food and meet the entertainer at the airport. Except the half-smokes courier runs into traffic and is late. And Cosby doesn't want to keep Gore's well-heeled supporters in limbo. So he phones Latham. "I'm not waiting anymore." But he adds: "He should have had my half-smokes there."
A half-hour later, Cosby arrives at Latham's Bethesda home, where the veep's contributors are munching miniature crab cakes and sipping white wine. And sure enough, just five minutes behind is another car with the smokes. Cosby's a happy man.
The fund-raiser is the engine of American politics, and the engine needs a lot of maintenance. Sometimes it's all about the half-smokes. Details, piddling details. Directions to the house. Are all the name tags printed? Who's paid, who hasn't? We need the parking valets, with their big golf umbrellas, to escort guests to the house or to the tent, wherever they need to be. Bleeping rain!! Too many details. Cigars for Cosby. Flowers for actress Sonia Braga. Flowers for Latham's wife, Connie, a human resources consultant and co-host of this soiree. Better not forget that. Gore's on a special diet. Need a plate of raw veggies for him in the holding room. By the way, who gets access to the holding room?
People who write large checks to candidates want to be treated like a date. They want fine food, entertainment, pictures taken with the next president of the United States (maybe). They want a cozy room where they can mingle with people like themselves.
It's called a fund-raiser.
Monday night's event started out as an idea three months ago. Latham, a senior partner at the law firm of Shaw, Pittman, approached the veep. "I thought he needed a major, diverse fund-raiser. In politics, most of the fund-raisers you go to, the vast majority of the people there are of the majority persuasion."
Latham had met Cosby through Jesse Jackson last year and they became fast friends. With Cosby on board, Latham knew he had a drawing card. Cosby, who had never endorsed a presidential candidate before, talked with Gore by phone. Then it was just a matter of coordinating schedules.
Latham then went to Dana London, head of a nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring that works with professional athletes. Cosby, a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets, had introduced the two and had asked Latham to give London some legal and business advice. London, who had met NBA star Shaquille O'Neal through the '96 Olympics, was able to get the big fella on board. Actress Sonia Braga, who has worked with Cosby, was added to the lineup. And so now there were the makings of a program that would be billed as "Hollywood Comes to Washington to Support Al Gore."
Except on Monday afternoon, just hours before the event, Shaq bails. An emergency, he explains. "Athletes get such a bad reputation" for being no-shows, says London. "He asked me what he could do." The answer: Send a letter of apology and endorsement. Done. The letter will be read at the event, and Gore aides will eagerly distribute it to the press. As a bonus, O'Neal will offer Gore one of his size 22 sneakers "as kind of a token of filling big shoes," says London. Nice photo-op under the circumstances, organizers reason.
"Shaquille O'Neal is my biggest supporter," Gore deadpans later. O'Neal, after all, is 7-foot-1.
It's 5:15 p.m. The VIP reception starts at 6:30. The program starts at 8. Quesadillas are being cooked on hot plates. You can smell them. This is the third in a series of six Gore fund-raisers being catered by B&B, a company that knows the drill. No carbohydrates for Gore. He likes the plum tart, "but unfortunately we're not having that tonight," says Paul Corsi, the B&B sales assistant who's supervising on site. "I think this menu's been changed three times."
Then there's the Secret Service.
"I've got a guy out here who says he's Weldon's law partner," barks one agent, hoping for a definitive answer from someone with one of those lapel clips that indicate special Secret Service clearance.
Amy Berg Nee scurries toward him. She's the Latham assistant who's choreographing the affair. She's the one with the sheaf of papers in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. She's the one directing all these young volunteers--aspiring lawyers, Capitol Hill aides--who are standing around waiting to be told what to do.
"He's all right," she says.
The Lathams live in a sprawling brick house on a cul-de-sac near the Avenel golf course in Potomac. A check-in table is set up in the garage for most guests, who head to the basement buffet or to chairs arranged under a large white tent in the back yard where Gore will make remarks and Cosby will do his bit. Another check-in table is set up at the front door. This is the entrance for 50 or so VIPs who get to mingle under the crystal teardrop chandelier in the dining room and have their photos snapped with Cosby and Gore.
The crowd, overall, is predominantly black--businessmen, attorneys, politicians. The event raises more than $250,000 and attracts Mayor Anthony Williams, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Braga, who doesn't make any formal remarks but has come to lend her name.
Cosby does a half-hour comedy routine with a clip-on mike, walking the aisle, making guests part of his act. When Frizzell Woodson, co-owner of a trucking company, makes his way toward Cos with a camera, Cosby ushers him back to his seat. "We're going to send you over to the Bradley camp."
After his routine, after the vice president has addressed the crowd about civil rights and education and health care, Cosby is asked about Bill Bradley.
"Bradley's a good man, good man," he says. "Bradley's an honest man. But here's the thing." What's the thing?
Cosby cocks the eyebrows--you don't want to change course, do you? "Hello. If you look at the country and look at what the president did, I say let's follow that company. I'm going to buy more stock in that company."
And then someone gives him a cigar, he gets in a waiting car with his half-smokes, and leaves.
CAPTION: The vice president and Bill Cosby with a gift from Shaq.
CAPTION: Vice President Gore, at the receiving end of Bill Cosby's shtick.