When a branch of the Israel Bonds organization honored a New Jersey Teamsters official at a banquet last October, a rare ripple of controversy was stirred in a decades-old fixture of American life; the testimonial dinner.
Joseph Pecora, the Teamsters official who was honored, had been linked with organized crime during a Senate committee hearing five years earlier as a dissident Teamsters group soon noted. The dissident Teamsters, moreover, took a jab at Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) who, according to an aide, was paid a $1,500 honorarium for his speech at the Israel Bonds dinner honoring Pecora.
Zany? Not in the world of testimonials, where incongruities flourish and logic often is subtly bent askew. Over the years, awards dinners have frequently brought together such semingly unlike elements as Israel Bonds, a New Jersey Teamsters stalwart and an Indiana senator.
Testimonials, their organizers say, are more than homage to the worthy, the wise and the righteous. They are a mixture of altruism and self-interest, a combination of grateful tribute and calculated flattery. They have a politics of their own - a politics described by some practitioners as a form of shrewd manipulation.
In addition to serving as rituals for passing out awards, citations and an array of other honors, many testimonials are also carefully orchestrated to raise funds, garner publicity, gain prestige, win political backing, lobby for causes, and woo the aid of wealthy and influential people who may be useful in future days.
"The important thing as an honoree is not to take it too seriously" says Giant Food president Joseph B. Danzansky, who has helped host numerous Washington testimonials and has frequently been an award recipient himself. "You have to take it with tongue in cheek." Were it not for charitable organizations and their need to raise funds, Danzanky notes, such awards might not be given at all.
Week after week across the country, testimonials are thrown by local labor unions and national charitable organizations, by universities and religious groups, by military associations and business councils, councils, by social clubs and political parties, and by groups advocating a range of liberal and conservative causes. Some attract people who like to mingle with celebrities.
When the Natural Resources Defense Council held a testimonial dinner for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) in February, the man called in the hand Muskie the council's award was an actor by the name of Rober Redford. Redford, indeed, is also an environmentalist and member of the group's board of trustees. Redford's name added a touch of glamour and served as "a sort of drawing card" for the testimonial, one council official said.
Two celebrities from the field of numismatics - Eva B. Adams, former director of the mint, and Margo Russell, editor of Coin World magazine - drew a crowd of coin collectors when they were honored at a testimonial staged last month by Sales and Marketing Executives of Metropolitan Washington.
Religious in Ameircan Life gave a dinner this month for Sol M. Linowitz, former ambassador of the Organization of American States and now a special U.S. negotiator in the Panama Canal talks. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) is scheduled to be honored this week at a testimonial sponsored by the National Committee for Full Employment. The American Jewish Committee recently honored Joe L. Allbritton, Texas banker and chairman of The Washington Star. Among sponsors of other testimonials this month are Howard University and the West Point Society.
Testimonials have proliferated throughout this century. Among the oldest practitioners of the art still at helped arrange testimonials fund-raisers for charitable enterprises since 1916 when he started working for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York. Berend, now 79, has a public relations firm based in New York and Beverly Hills, Calif.
Fifty years ago, Berend says, he helped arrange a welcome-home testimonial dinner after Charles A. Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris flight. Today Berend is at work preparing for a 50th anniversary fund-raising testimonial in Los Angeles for the Charles A. Lindbergh Memorial Fund.
Though there are apparently many such milestones in the history of the testimonial, few appear to have been recorded. One turning point, noted by historical researchers, occurred in 1936. It altered the testimonial habits of the Democratic Party.
"The first annual Democratic National Committee Dinner held primarily for a fund-raising purpose, costing $50 a plate, was held in 1936 in the Mayflower Hotel with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the only speaker," writes Ronald F. Stinnett in "Democrats, Dinners & Dollars," a historical study. "More than 2,000 attended this dinner and paid $100,000 for the privilege. During the deep depression, this was a great amount of money." In 1937, Stinnett adds, the price was raised to $100 a plate.
As fund-raising goes, however, testimonials usually raise only modest sums, garnering thousands, but seldom millions of dollars. Jack Schwartz, president of the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, a nonprofit information center for the field of philantrophy, says that, comparatively speaking, the amount of money collected by most testimonials is "minuscule."
One prominent exception, noted by Schwartz and others, is testimonial fund-raising by Israel Bonds, the United Jewish Appeal and other Jewish organizations, which has yielded hundred of millions of dollars over the years. But seldom has one of these group's testimonials set off even so mild a tempest as the prompted by the dinner for Pecora, the New Jersey Teamsters official.
Pecora, who is secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 863, was honored by a New Jersey Israel Bonds division because, a spokesman said, he had helped in Israel Bonds campaigns over the years. The testimonial itself resulted in sales of $3.5 million in Israel bonds, the spokesman added.
The dinner prompted criticism from dissident Teamsters, called Prod, Ind., who pointed to Pecora's alleged ties to the Cosa Nostra and long arrest record. An aide to Bayh said the Indiana senator was previously unaware of the allegations leveled against Pecora. Teamsters officials have had no comment on Prod's complaint.
In contrast with the millions of dollars raised at Israel Bonds dinners, most fund-raising testimonials produce only enough money to finance the yearly operating expenses of organizations sponsoring them.
Joan Morse, president of Frank H. Berend and Associates, Inc., and daughter of the public relations firm's founder, says a rule of thumb for testimonials arranged by her firm will net a $100-a-plate dinner likely will net $25,000 for its sponsor for the first 500 tickets sold and $8,000 more for every additional 100 tickets. This is the take after paying cost of the dinner, liquor, invitations, her firm's fee and other expenses.
Several officials in organizations that run their own testimonials say their cost average about $25 to $35 a person. The bulk of such expenses, according to testimonial organizers and hotel caterers in Washington, is the dinner itself, along with drinks. A chicken dinner costs less than roast beef or steak. Tickets to testimonials now frequently are priced at $125 or $150, showing the effects of inflation. Cooperation officials often are asked to buy a table - 10 tickets.
The politics of the testimonial lies in the selection of awards recipients, banquet chairmen and vice chairmen, and speakers. Often these figures are chosen, at least partly, because of their prominence, financial leverage, glamor or political clout. "The (award) recipient is more important than the speaker," says Morton Yarmon, public relations director of the American Jewish Committee, describing factors that sell tickets.
People of wealth, prominence and power are persuaded to attend testimonials, some dinner organizers say, because they feel a sense of obligation or gratitude either to a person who is being honored or to a member of a banquet committee who asks them to buy a ticket.
"A testimonial raises money from people who have never given to the charity," says public relations promoted Berend. "We usually pick a man (to receive an award or chair a dinner) who has a following of people who can't say no."
There is apparently no shortage of willing participants on the testimonial banquet circuit. "I don't think it's altruism - I think it goes into an area where you scratch my back, I scratch yours" says Charles A. McManus, former president of Americans for Constitutional Action, a conservative political group. "You would be surprised at how many people are willing to accept awards. People are hungry. They want recognition."
Friendships, in many ways, are in herent in the traditions of the testimonial.
When Washington Star chairman Allbritton was honored by the American Jewish Committee last month, the testimonial drew ranking members of the Carter administration and Congress, business executives and diplomats. His newspaper competitor, The Washington Post, took a table.
Allbritton had been suggested for the award by a friend of his, Lester S. Hyman, a lawyer who heads the American Jewish Committee's Washington chapter. Leon Jaworski, former Watergate prosecutor, was then sought out as principal speaker for the testimonial because of his long friendship with Allbritton. Other friends also flew here from Houston for the dinner.
Sometimes testimonial bear unexpected fruit. In 1974 the late Gustave L. Levy, an investment banker, was invited to sit at the dials at the testimonial honoring former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller held in Odyssey House, a New York drug addiction treatment project. A few days after the dinner took place, officials say Levy sent a contribution to Odyssey House that was larget that the $50,000 raised by the banquet itself.
In 1975, Odysset House a testimonial in honor of Levey himself.