The Wisdom Of Chairman Roone

Former ABC News president Roone Arledge, who tonight helps Ted Koppel celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Nightline" at the Library of Congress, practically invented the network's news division. He introduced "Nightline," "World News Tonight," "This Week With David Brinkley," "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live," and nurtured such stars as Koppel, Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

Today, the 68-year-old Arledge is news chairman and above the fray, which in recent weeks has certainly frayed President David Westin, his handpicked successor. Westin, Arledge's co-host tonight, is still struggling to overcome the fallout of Leonardo DiCaprio's late March "visit"--or was it an "interview"?--with President Clinton.

"Come on, you don't think I'm going to talk about that, do you?" Arledge told us. "I don't want to point to David. There are moments at every place, from The Washington Post to the New York Times, where, in retrospect, you can say that people should have had better sense." Arledge said he meets with Westin once a week to talk things over. "I have been as supportive as I possibly can be, but if it's something I don't agree with, part of my role is to say that. I was not involved in the DiCaprio thing." The flap "hasn't totally fizzled out yet--I saw something on it again today or yesterday," he added. "Those things have a way of coming back, particularly in jokes."

Arledge blames CNN President Rick Kaplan, a former ABC News executive and twice an overnight White House guest, for Clinton's savage humor at last month's Radio & Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, when the president took the lectern to the theme song from "Titanic" and quipped: "ABC doesn't know whether Leo and I had an interview, a walk-through or a drive-by. But I don't know if all their damage control is worth the effort. I mean, it's a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the set of 'This Week With Sam and Cokie.' " Arledge told us: "I haven't talked to Rick but I saw his fine hand. . . . He has written stuff for Clinton before." Yesterday, an emphatic Kaplan told us: "I have never in my life helped him write jokes or anything else."

The Track Star's New Event

Jackie Joyner-Kersee sprints to Capitol Hill this morning for Asthma Awareness Day. The 38-year-old winner of three Olympic gold medals, including two for the heptathlon, was diagnosed with the chronic lung disease as a freshman at UCLA. "I just wasn't feeling well, and I was wheezing," she told us from St. Louis, where she lives with husband and former coach Bob Kersee. "I just thought I was out of shape. But I was afraid because I thought they were going to take away my scholarship."

It took her a long time to accept her asthma, a disease that plagues 17 million Americans and causes more than 5,000 deaths a year. "I was being Superwoman, believing those articles that they wrote about me," she said. When she was breathing easy, she didn't take her medication, which led to several terrifying attacks that landed her in the hospital, feeling like someone was "putting a pillow over your face and suffocating you." But eventually she "learned to respect asthma like I respected my opponents."

Two years ago Joyner-Kersee retired from competition and now is a paid spokeswoman for drugmaker Glaxo Wellcome, working to raise asthma awareness. Her main message is that with appropriate treatment, asthma can be controlled. It certainly didn't stop her from winning six Olympic medals and setting both world and Olympic records in the seven-event heptathlon. "You shouldn't allow it to restrict you from doing anything," she said.

THIS JUST IN . . .

* A hyperventilating Terry McAuliffe claims that a May 24 tribute to President Clinton at MCI Center--which could top George W. Bush's recent $22 million Washington fundraiser and will feature Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams--is going to be "the greatest political event in history!"

* Slipping into town to sign copies of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's novel "Battlefield Earth," which he has made into a movie, John Travolta aced our Exciting Celebrity Tip Challenge. The barrel-chested actor left an extra $80--or 133 percent--on a $60 lunch tab Sunday at Guards restaurant in Georgetown, where he and an unidentified male companion ordered four appetizers--shrimp cocktail, brie, calamari and smoked salmon--plus a cheddar cheese burger for Travolta and a crab meat and asparagus omelet for his friend. Then dessert--chocolate mousse and key lime pie. No wonder Mean magazine dubbed Travolta "The Star Who Ate Hollywood."

* Former independent counsel Ken Starr drops by Washington's School Without Walls today to field high school students' questions.