By Michael Colton
But as a crucial element in a presidential scandal, Paula Jones eclipsed everyone else in the room. If this was Washington's version of Oscar night, then she was the little gold statuette -- everyone wanted to be seen with her.
Well, not everybody. Some people tried to avoid her and succeeded. Like President Clinton, who delivered a funny, Paula-free speech to the 2,600 guests in the cavernous Washington Hilton ballroom. Those who sat near Jones at the back of the room said she listened to Clinton's speech with her back to him and didn't applaud, though she laughed when he said: "I hardly have any time to read the news anymore. Mostly I just skim the retractions."
Jones and Clinton had not been in the same room since Jan. 17, when she spent six hours listening to the president give his deposition in her sexual harassment lawsuit. Her suit against the president was dismissed April 1, but she plans to appeal.
Once upon a time, the correspondents' dinner was a more sedate affair where journalists showed gratitude to their sources with food and booze. Now it's a circus of celebrity, where both guests and non-guests line the hotel lobby and driveway hoping for a glimpse of someone, anyone.
It's where Internet gossip hound Matt Drudge and Clinton-hating literary agent Lucianne Goldberg are interviewed together by "Entertainment Tonight" outside the gates of the exclusive Vanity Fair post-party, next to bouncers who rebuffed Joe "Anonymous" Klein and Sen. John Warner as if they were club kids trying to get into Studio 54.
Jones is the latest in a long line of notorious women to attract attention at the dinner: Oliver North's former secretary, Fawn Hall, came in 1987 amid the Iran-contra investigation, followed by Gary Hart's femme fatale, Donna Rice, the year after. Marla Maples, Donald Trump's then-new flame, came in 1990, and girlfriends Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche billed and cooed in front of Clinton at last year's fete.
"It's the ultimate 'cult of celebrity' event in the U.S.," said a dazed Marty Bell, the associate producer of the musical "Ragtime." "With 3,000 people here, this could be the biggest national fund-raiser for AIDS research or breast cancer, but this event is about nothing except being here."
Every variety of celebrity was there, and each guest had a different must-see star. For one, it was actress Salma Hayek. For another, Sen. John Glenn. And for still another, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
Okay, probably not Erskine Bowles.
"I'm looking for Sharon Stone because I was her English teacher in high school," said Ann Klenk, a CBS producer. "And my mother does water aerobics with her mother in Erie, Pennsylvania."
Adding their two cents to the ongoing discussion of the convergence of Hollywood and Washington:
Satirist Al Franken: "This is a little like the Emmys and the Oscars, but people don't have to look good. People can be out of shape."
Economist and game show host Ben Stein: "This is better than Hollywood parties because you have the beautiful girls of Hollywood but the conversational skills of Washington." Stein then went to look for a cell phone.
Warren Beattyesque star Warren Beatty: "I can't tell the difference anymore. That's a good quote, huh?"
Before Jones arrived as a guest of Insight magazine ("a conservative magazine affiliated with the Washington Times," went the refrain), she was much anticipated by tuxedo-clad men and sequin-enhanced women who walked by the Times party hoping for a glimpse. Many people, though, professed indifference to her appeal.
"I certainly won't go out of my way to say hi to her," said ABC anchor Peter Jennings. Filmmaker Ken Burns said, "I have no interest in her whatsoever. I'll say hello to the president, though."
Jon Bon Jovi had a planned greeting in case he met up with Jones: "Lighten up, babe."
The entrance of Bon Jovi, who broke the tuxedo mold with a black suit, black shirt and black necktie, caused a minor traffic jam in a narrow hallway when he ran into Barbara Walters and Warner. "That's a stunning hairdo," said Warner to Bon Jovi's wife, Dorothea, of her blond curls. "You could patent that and make a fortune."
Jones finally arrived around 7 p.m. to a huge roar from the crowd, not unlike the screams when the Beatles first arrived in America. Except no one booed the Beatles.
Wearing a cleavage-coercing blue dress with a beaded bodice, Jones was immediately whisked downstairs by her husband, Stephen, her adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan and a phalanx of police officers. She reemerged at the Vanity Fair pre-party, where she was the center of attention in a room that included Bon Jovi, Charlie Rose, Martha Stewart, Walter Cronkite and Alan Greenspan. "Should we just say we've seen her and move on?" asked one observer.
The Jones camp moved to an outdoor terrace, where concentric circles of gawkers and well-wishers surrounded her, requesting autographs and photos. One woman got her signature on CBS stationery. Some were blushing, as if they were greeting, say, Earl Spencer, Princess Diana's brother.
But no, he was inside, at the ABC News party. The notorious press basher had arrived with Barbara Walters, and said the person he was most excited to meet at the dinner was Sam Donaldson.
Meanwhile, Carpenter-McMillan left no Jones grooming detail to chance, at one point extracting a tissue from her Judith Leiber jewel-encrusted, dog-shaped evening bag and deftly dabbing perspiration from Jones's upper lip and cheeks.
Sensing a faux pas, Jones removed a piece of dark-green gum from her mouth and handed it to Carpenter-McMillan, who put it on a plate.
No one took the gum home.
The photographers who surrounded Jones were remarkably courteous, including Harry Hamburg of the New York Daily News. Hamburg was so nice that in a rare display of journalist-subject synergy, he offered Carpenter-McMillan the opportunity to come over to his computer, where he had just uploaded photos from his digital camera, and select which images of her and Jones should go out over the wire.
Carpenter-McMillan considered for a moment, but then was distracted by the mob.
Rep.--elect Mary Bono ended up in a photograph with Jones. "I didn't mean to -- it just kind of happened," Bono said. "Actually, I was trying to stay away."
Once inside the dinner, Jones posed for a picture with Donaldson. Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington embraced her and told her, "You look gorgeous."
Jones sat at Table 241, near the exit. One of her table mates was Watergate felon and radio host G. Gordon Liddy, who said, "I'm specifically charged by all the women in my family to tell her that they are grateful for what she is doing for the women of America."
At the dinner, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry did not spend much time at Table 69, where he was seated with Sen. Charles Robb and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson. Richardson said Barry hadn't confided in him about seeking another term as mayor, but added, "I know his wife, Cora, and she looks like she's getting ready to run."
Before the dinner, the Barrys crashed a VIP reception that included the Clintons, the Gores, Bon Jovi, Sharon Stone, golfer Greg Norman and Walter Cronkite.
An elegant, composed Hillary Rodham Clinton received a modest standing ovation when the head table was introduced. Word of her grilling by independent counsel Kenneth Starr earlier in the day had "spread like El Niño in here," said Drudge.
Drudge, in his trademark porkpie hat, said he planned to "spend some time under tables to see who's rubbing knees."
Domestic guru Stewart remarked on the cuisine, which featured sliced loin of veal, salmon medallion and smoked duck breast with sesame noodles. "Hotel food," she said with a smile.
Henry Kissinger was there, as was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and publishing tycoon Mort Zuckerman and his wife, Marla Prather, a National Gallery of Art honcho. United Press International's Helen Thomas received a lifetime achievement award.
Dick Cavett was there, trying to remember which year he was the dinner's featured entertainer.
This year, that role fell to sitcom star Ray Romano of CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond," who devoted most of his jokes to the torments of being a parent. "They hired me because they knew I wasn't going to do political stuff," Romano said. He liked Clinton's speech, but "unfortunately, I didn't get half the jokes."
Clinton scored by making fun of his frequent apologies during his trip to Africa and adding some more: "I regret our long neglect of the planet Pluto. It took until 1930 to welcome Pluto into the family of planets. And that was wrong. And I am so sorry . . . about disco."
He also drew laughter for suggesting a replacement once "Seinfeld" goes off the air: "Congress on C-SPAN. Now there's a show about nothing."
After the dinner, the Vanity Fair party was the place to be. The privileged jumped into cabs and limos to drive the half-block to the soiree at the Russian Trade Federation Building, which offered sushi spring rolls and a lit-up patio and couches on the lawn and revealing dresses. Young, blond television actresses like Melissa Joan Hart discussed "career longevity" while their boyfriends talked on cell phones. White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and Drudge, currently pitted against each other in a lawsuit, refused to acknowledge each other's presence.
And Richard Dreyfuss and Michael Douglas were there, as was Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening. And a lot of other people who have probably never been in the Russian Trade Federation Building before: Franken and Bono and Hayek and Stewart and Romano. And Maureen Dowd and Wolf Blitzer and Anna Deavere Smith, and Ron Silver and Frances Fisher, and Earl Spencer and "The Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger, Dana Delany, Bianca Jagger and Christopher Buckley.
Meanwhile, back at the Hilton, all the people who weren't on Vanity Fair's guest list were still partying. Like Paula Jones, who was still posing for pictures at 2 a.m.
Among her company: Donna Rice Hughes. Formerly Donna Rice. Formerly the star of this affair.
Staff writers Annie Groer, Ann Gerhart, Roxanne Roberts and John Yang contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company