Lunch-Time Takedowns

Historians often study popular culture to glean clues as to what makes a society tick. They chart turnout at events like gladiator fights or public hangings or mosh pits to gauge cultural trends.

Anyone trying to understand political life in late-20th-century Washington might analyze attendance figures at National Press Club luncheon speeches for similar reasons. Who -- or what -- really grabs the attention of the reporters, lobbyists, PR folks and others who like to think of themselves as movers and shakers?

Of the 33 speakers who had appeared at the Press Club by mid-June, the biggest draw this year was -- naturally -- former wrestler and current Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who spoke in February to 381 members and guests.

But a not-too-distant second, drawing 324 people in April, perhaps inexplicably, was . . . Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who held forth on housing policy, poverty and HUD programs. Cuomo released a report that day about continued poverty in America in the midst of boom times.

After Cuomo, the next-highest draw was former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell, who spoke to 314 people in mid-May. No other speaker broke 300. In fact, none came close. Comedian George Carlin, reportedly in top form and very funny, drew 231 people in May, which was three more than Rep. J.C. Watts(R-Okla.), a featured speaker in January.

And who were the worst draws? The reigning Miss America, Nicole Johnson, chatted with a mere 77 people, but that was six more than the number who lunched with author Tom Clancy. He drew the sparsest crowd so far this year. Attorney General Janet Reno did slightly better. She spoke to 79 people, as did long-shot presidential candidate Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio).

Other presidential hopefuls didn't exactly pack the house, either. Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) chatted with 85 people, pundit Pat Buchanan did much better, attracting 134, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke to 150 people. (Former president Gerald Ford did slightly better, attracting 168 members.)

So what to make of this? Press Club folks by a 4-to-1 ratio would rather have lunch with Andrew Cuomo than Miss America? Is The End near?

"I'm surprised that we came in second," Cuomo deadpanned. "There is such an interest in HUD and urban issues." Cuomo said he cheered up his crestfallen staff after coming in second. "I said, `It's all right, it's not that bad,' " noting that HUD was like Avis: "We try harder."

Next year he promised to "unveil a new theme [that would] guarantee number one." It's called the UWP -- everything at HUD is initials -- which stands for "Urban Wrestling Program," Cuomo said, sort of a "wrestling in street clothes."

We'll let historians sort this out for future generations.

Everybody's A Hero

Back in April, the Defense Department unveiled its Cold War Recognition certificate, suitable for lamination and framing, and available to members of the armed forces, Pentagon civilians and other federal workers on the job between 1945 and 1991.

The program has been such a "remarkable success," the Army says on its Web site (coldwar.army.-mil), that there's now a four-month wait for these beauties. The site has drawn more than 555,000 "hits" and doubtless more are coming.

The State Department last month cabled all personnel overseas to tell them of the certificate, noting that many of them were eligible and could apply if they "faithfully and honorably served the United States" in those years. Did you "faithfully and honorably" select artwork for embassies, hold tea parties for visiting politicians' spouses, stamp "Top Secret" on every piece of paper you could find? Then what are you waiting for? The certificate is absolutely free. And if the grandkids ask what you did during the Cold War, just point to that formerly empty spot on the wall.

The Book On Kosovo

Back when he was losing the war in Kosovo, President Clinton was criticized by "knowledgeable" people for reading

too much about the region or reading the wrong stuff -- specifically the book Balkan Ghosts, which dwells on ancient hatreds among the people who populate that part of the world.

But there has been little mention of Clinton's favorite Balkans book, A Bridge Betrayed, by Haverford College religion

professor Michael Sells, which argues that the various ethnic groups actually had gotten along well for centuries.

Sells, of Serbian descent, writes that strife in the Balkans can be blamed, not on historic enmity but on more recent anti-Muslim Serbian nationalist rantings.

Clinton apparently liked this book so much that he sent it around to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William

Cohen, national security adviser Sandy Berger and Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Hugh Shelton as required reading.

So maybe that's what changed the tide of the war?

Tips and comments for Al Kamen's column are welcomed at: In the Loop, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at Loop@washpost.com. Please include home and work phone numbers