Opinions Flowed Like Wine at Washington Media Parties

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By: Joe Strupp

Almost more intriguing than the White House Correspondents Dinner itself was the chatter, buzz and downright gossip of the surrounding parties, receptions and hallway discussions. Even though comedian Stephen Colbert and President Bush — along with his impersonator friend — amused the roomful of newspeople and celebrities, the array of comments in and out of the ballroom also proved eye-opening.

In a room where guests ranged from the likes of Henry Kissenger to Morgan Fairchild, it wasn’t all policy and politics. With the NFL draft just hours earlier on Saturday, Pittsburgh Steeler and Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger said he was still keeping tabs on the football picks via cell phone, even as salad was being served. The guest of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Roethlisberger glad-handed table visitors at Blitzer’s side like dutiful son: “I have to keep up with him.”

The Washington Post’s sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, who will join Monday Night Footbal broadcasters this fall, when asked what he thought of President Bush, said “I have no comment,” except on Reggie Bush, the college football star drafted by the New Orleans Saints earlier that day.

Speaking of the Hurricane-ravaged city, there was Mayor Ray Nagin, who is facing a tough run-off re-election. After going through the heavy Secret Service metal-detector gauntlet, and awaiting a glass of white wine, Nagin offered mixed views on the president’s job. “I think he’s struggling a little bit,” he said. But, when given a chance to slam the president for the poor hurricane response, he held back slightly. “It’s still slow, but it’s better. He is very responsive, I can contact him now.”

The other big-city mayor in the room, New York’s Mike Bloomberg, said only, “He’s having a tough time, but it’s an honor to be here.” When asked to elaborate, the media mogul said, “You’re nice to stop by.”

Actress Morgan Fairchild, a guest of U.S. News & World Report, declined to criticize Bush too much, noting only “Let’s put it this way, I am a Democrat,” adding that her party “should be sweeping Congress,” come November.

Always-opinionated talk show host John McLaughlin said impeachment cannot be ruled out if Democrats take the House or Senate. “He’s facing a difficult election for the House and Senate,” McLaughlin boomed. “If the Democrats win the House, there will be extensive hearings on the war and what stems from Abramoff.”

Nearby, Bush got some support from Henry Kissinger, who said, “I agree with the direction he is moving the country,” but, of the low approval ratings, said only, “I am no expert on public opinion.” He then shook hands with a smiling Lou Doobs, who said “Hello professor.”

Among those who weighed in on new press secretary Tony Snow were Bob Schieffer, the soon-to-be departing CBS News anchor. Like others at the dinner, he said Snow’s success “will depend on if he is fully briefed on what is going on.” He added that, in today’s Washington, “It is much more difficult to get information than it used to be. When I came here, most congressmen didn’t even have press secretaries.”

As diners noshed on the squash and artichoke salads, filet mignon/sea bass/risotto entr?e and toffee pudding, those who dared walk between tables had to duck out of the way of staffers carrying large trays of food and demanding they move aside with the urgency of secret service agents.

Chris Matthews, he of Hardball and “Saturday Night Live” impersonations, found the annual friendly gathering of adversaries a bit improper. “It seems to be a celebratory ritual at a time when the country is divided,” he said while sitting at his table in between dinner and dessert. “It is odd.” He noted a spoof video at a previous dinner in which Bush was sent hunting for WMD’s: “The press laughed as the president lampooned his reasons for the war.”

Elsewhere, those guests posing for pictures ranged from actor Laurence Fishburne to “American Idol” singer Ace Young. Two guests who kept a low profile were the military veterans brought by The Boston Globe, including one who had recently served in Iraq.

At one point, former baseball manager Tommy Lasorda was holding court with about eight twentysomething men and women, talking steroids. “They’re going to come out with a lot of stuff on these things,” he told the youngsters who were intensely attentive. “These steroids, you watch.” Later in the evening, some were overhead trying to talk him into coming to Georgetown with them.

The formal dinner program included not only Bush and Colbert, but two videos – one showing the cramped White House press quarters that will soon be remodeled and another in which Colbert presented what life would be like were he press secretary. It ended with Helen Thomas dogging him with questions about the war in Iraq, and following him to New York. “It was all in fun,” she said.

Those seated near Bush said he quickly turned from a smiling joke victim to an obviously offended target as Colbert’s comments brought up his low approval ratings, problems in Iraq, and even Dick Cheney’s shooting episode.

Several veterans of past dinners, who requested anonymity, said the presentation was more directed at attacking the president than in the past. Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps.

“This was all anti-Bush,” said one attendee. “Usually they go back and forth between us and him.” Another noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy, and left the dais shortly after while most seated near him, including Colbert and Snow, glad-handed the crowd. “You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert.”

After the gathering, Snow, while nursing a Heineken outside the Chicago Tribune reception, declined to comment on Colbert. “I’m not doing entertainment reviews,” he said. “I thought the president was great, though.”

Among the after parties was that thrown by Reuters, which went all out, offering town cars and shuttle buses to transport people from The Washington Hilton to a K Street lounge. Once inside, the music-pounding sound system kept any sleepyheads wide awake.

The most interesting element of the Reuters gathering was the political drink list, which included The Cheney Shot, with Wild Turkey or Famous Grouse; The Condoleezza, “clear, perfectly chilled”; The Deep Throat, “smooth drink with a deep dark secret”; and The Rove Rage, which lets you “let loose a little righteous anger.”

Finally, those departing the Reuters shindig were given a half-dozen glazed Krispy Kreme Donuts. A comment on the administration trying to sugarcoat half-baked ideas?

***

Earlier, at the pre-dinner cocktail receptions spread over two floors at the Hilton, Valerie Plame and husband Joseph Wilson were in the crowd spilling out of the ABC News party (they are guests of the network at the dinner). Plame was pleasant, but asked by E&P why she came tonight she said, “I’m sorry,” adding in mock-red carpet lingo, “I’m wearing Armani.” Her gown was ivory.

Asked what might happen if she met the president, she repeated, “I’m wearing Armani.”

Off that subject, she explained that since leaving the CIA in January she’d been taking care of the couple’s kids. “It’s more fun and more difficult” than working at the agency, she said.

“We thought it would be fun,” she finally said about the dinner. “We look forward to a delightful evening.”

Her husband was a bit more blunt: “We have no reason to hide.” He said some Republicans blamed him for the president’s low approval ratings, but he said that was not his fault, “although I do have a W in my name also.”

George Clooney arrived at the Newsweek party with his newsman father, the pair just back from a trip to Darfur and Chad. Clooney praised New York Times reporter Nick Kristof for raising Darfur issues, and said he would be attending a Sunday rally for Darfur in D.C.

Asked what he thought about Tony Snow taking over as White House press secretary – a hot topic of cocktail chatter – Clooney said, “Maybe it will help Bush, Tony is very good at what he does.”

Later, Clooney met Snow and told him, “Good luck, it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Clooney was also overheard responding when asked about the food in Darfur: “Don’t eat the goat. It took revenge on me.”

When E&P asked Snow for his outlook on his new job, he said, ‘I’ll do it my way. I’m going to learn from Scott [McClellan]. I have to figure out how to do it. But it’s all good.”

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times said that when she interviewed Snow several years ago she found him uncommonly “nice.” But she added: “I think he’s really irrelevant to the problem. They have to make fundamental changes to the war council.”

NBC’s David Gregory, who had many tough exchanges with McClellan, explained the Snow appointment to E&P this way: “It seems like [Josh] Bolton wanted [Bush] to loosen up and be a little more accessible. Bush must have agreed, if he hired a guy like Tony. It’s hard to believe that Bush would have hired a guy like Snow earlier because he did not trust outsiders.”

MSNBC conservative host Joe Scarborough, asked to size up the president’s current political problems, said, “The common wisdom is that George Bush and the Republican party are in trouble. There is no doubt that if the Democrats take control of the House or Senate, the last two years for George Bush will be as difficult for him as the last two years were for Clinton.” In any case, he added, “most people think Bush will not recover and investigations will continue for years.”

The late-breaking “Hookergate” scandal, he said, “will keep reporters and columnists busy this summer.”

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