One of the wonders of Washington is the way it affords grown men and women the chance to feel like the captains of cheerleaders just before prom time. All you need is a position of power and/or influence and Washington journalists, in this the season of the Gridiron and other dinners, will fall all over you. They all need a date.
It must be wonderful to be, say, a James Baker -- once of the White House, now of Treasury. It's a good bet that every news organization in town was after him to be its guest at one dinner or the other -- anything from the Gridiron (where he was a guest of the club) to the White House Correspondents dinner or, just maybe, the equally lavish and just as silly Radio and Television Correspondents dinner.
Anyone who has ever been to one of these dinners can tell you that you are judged by your guest. The more important he is, the more important you are. In fact, it would be wonderful if journalists and their guests came as couples and were announced as such at the door: the bureau chief from a farm-state paper and the undersecretary of grain.
Now you may ask whether there isn't some conflict -- at least the appearance of one -- between asking someone to be your guest for the night and aggressively reporting the next day how that person does his job. You may ask whether, having told his publisher that, say, George Shultz will be his guest, a reporter will then do a story that will compel the secretary of state to have other plans for the evening -- leaving an empty chair and a publisher with no stories to tell at the club back home.
The fact of the matter is that these dinners are testimonials to conflicts of interest. Not only are they sometimes off the record, but they have an us-against-them quality -- the us being government and the press, the them being you, the people. Here we all sit down several times a year and pretend -- ha ha -- that we're all in this together. Thus, it is somehow funny for reporters to dress up as toilet seats (I kid you not) and make fun of Pentagon procurement policies. Everyone laughed, including Cap Weinberger, proving, if anything, that the joke's on you.
But the dinners are anything but funny. They are, in fact, a continuation of business under the guise of pleasure. For the Gridiron, Geraldine Ferraro used at least two ghostwriters for her dinner remarks and must have been just a wee bit nervous. After all, she was attempting to repair her image, recently soiled when she spilled a can of Diet Pepsi on it. As for Baker, he is reported to have used at least three gag writers. With that kind of help, Margaret Thatcher could be another Joan Rivers: Parliament, can we talk?
Washington is tough on grudges. The place is small, so involved in what amounts to one industry, that it long ago decided passion and fervor are out of place -- especially in the evenings. Political/governmental Washington could hardly function if we were all at each other's throats all the time.
The trouble is that Washington is not different from any other place: familiarity does not breed contempt, but its very opposite -- empathy. In less than 15 minutes, any public official with a minimum competency in the English language can convince me that he is misunderstood, overworked and getting a raw deal from the press. If he mentions his kids, I am a goner. This erosion of both objectivity and, worse, indignation is an inescapable occurrence in Washington. Sometimes you just get to like the people you cover. Sometimes, as a result, you get to see things their way.
The Gridiron and other dinners, though, are hardly inescapable. They're avoidable celebrations of self-importance, examples of Washington journalists' doing their strut, wearing high- powered guests as plumage and, in some cases, sidling up to the very people they're supposed to cover. In one way, journalism is not all that different from high school. You're still nobody without a date for the prom.