The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, known to the D.C. locals as “Nerd Prom,” Is an annual gathering of about 3,000 people in the Grand Ballroom of the Washington Hilton. The “official” reason for the dinner is to honor excellence in journalism by correspondents who cover activities in Washington, D.C. In recent years it has become an opportunity for movie, TV, tabloid, and marginal celebrities to hobnob with each other while trying to take selfies with the President. Well, except for this year because Trump decided he was “too busy” to attend.
For reasons too convoluted to explain here, I was invited to attend the 1999 dinner by Mort Zuckerman and the folks at the New York Daily News. We were told to be in the lobby of our D.C. hotel by 5:30 PM. I knew the evening was going to go well because I was able to knot my tuxedo bowtie on the first attempt. The men in their penguin suits, and the ladies in their beautiful evening gowns were greeted in the lobby by a string quartet and waiters pouring copious amounts of champagne down our gullets. After having our attitudes suitably adjusted, we poured into limousines for the quick drive to the Hilton.
As we pulled into the driveway, protesters who were upset about something or other blocked our path. The police formed a flying wedge to get us to the door. Waving from my limo I felt like Generalissimo Gordo from Santa Culata on his way to address Congress asking for more tanks.
Clutching my ticket close to my bosom, I got in line for the frisk and metal detectors. You never know, someone might want to take out a correspondent. There was an elderly, stoop-shouldered gentleman in line in front of me. He seemed to be a little confused by all the security. As he approached the metal detector, he stopped and looked around. I tapped him on the shoulder. I said, “It’s OK, sir, just walk on through.” “Zank you, young man. Vich vay to the Vanity Fair pahty?” said Henry Kissinger. This was going to be a fun evening.
I should point out that a ticket to this dinner was worth more than gold. Well, not exactly. The ticket was $300, but media companies bought them as tables of ten for $3000, giving the tickets to clients and celebrities they wanted to showcase. This made it tough for the average “correspondent” to get a ticket. The Dinner Association put the arm on the major media companies to host pre-dinner cocktail parties in suites that all opened to a common courtyard. I dutifully showed my ticket to the guard at the door of the Daily News suite and decided to relieve them of some of their single malt scotch. I decided to mingle and was soon talking to an affable gentleman. He said he was from New York. I told himthat I had lived in NYC for a while and was saddened to see what a mess the state was in. He then introduced himself. “Hello, I’m George Pataki, the Governor of New York.” As I unconvincingly told him I was only kidding, I moved to the door to the common courtyard. I now realized that I had access to ALL the pre-parties: Vanity Fair, ABC, GQ, Time, CNN, Washington Post. I traded acerbic observations with Dick Cavett, talked sports with George Plimpton, and generally made a nuisance of myself. An announcement came over the loudspeakers, “Please move to the Ballroom. The dinner is beginning.”
A tsunami of faux-glitterati, senators, Members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and movie stars poured into the Ballroom. Out table wasn’t in too bad of a location. It was close enough for me to lob a bread roll onto the dais in case of a food fight. Three hundred tables for ten were crammed into a room designed to hold a maximum of twenty-five hundred people. I saw no fire marshals. After I had wiggled my seat toward the table, I felt someone trying to squeeze into the table beside us. I turned in my seat and heard John Kennedy Jr. say, “I’m sorry. They really jam us in here.” Kennedy and his wife had had purchased a table for his new magazine, George. Seated with them was Claire Daines. Also at the table was Larry Flynt, who had come with a 19 year-old Hustler model/date/attendant, was resplendent in his solid gold wheelchair.
I noticed that there were two empty seats on the dais. I said aloud to myself, “Where are Bill and Hillary?” My host, hearing this, leaned over and whispered, “You don’t know? The journalist of the year award is going to Robert Isakoff. He broke the Monica Lewinsky story and the Association didn’t want to needlessly embarrass the President and his wife. They’re coming in right after the presentation.” Oh. Awkward!
An up and coming young NBC newsman named Brian Williams was the master of ceremonies. At the time, he was working for MSNBC. He went on to stardom as the NBC Nightly News anchor. Ironically, fate put him back at MSNBC.
The Marine Corps Band played “It’s A Grand Old Flag” as the colors were brought into the room. This was followed by the national anthem. This was then followed by the anthems of each of the armed forces branches. I must say, it was quite moving.
Dinner started. Before the croutons in our Caesar Salad could get mushy, hordes of waiters appeared to flip plates of chicken and salmon on our tables. Much wine was consumed as each media company tried to out-drink the next. As we finished our delicious desert of mystery sheet cake with sugar icing, the unmistakable strains of Ruffles and Flourishes followed by “Hail To the Chief” played by the Marine Band filled the room and silenced the drunken diners. In walked Bill and Hillary to thunderous applause. The atmosphere was electric.
Brian Williams came back to the podium and did twenty minutes of hilarious stand-up. He prophetically ended his time by saying, “I hope I haven’t offended anyone tonight. I’m not worried that NBC will get mad at me. They already have me assigned to cable.”
Now it was time for Bill Clinton to speak to the crowd. He was funny, sometimes ribald, and applied zingers all around. But the room exploded when, as he was wrapping up, he cited a news source that ranked the Top 100 Stories of the 20th Century. He said that he had made the list, but was a little upset that he only came in at #31, three places behind the invention of plastic. “I had some problems this past year, and I thought I would rank higher than the invention of plastic! Jeez! What’s a guy have to do to beat the invention of plastic? That event didn’t get 24/7 news coverage like I did.” There was a quick, audible gasp. Then the room then erupted in laughter and applause.
This set the room up for the evening’s entertainment: Aretha Franklin. She didn’t disappoint.
When Aretha was finished, after several encores, the Association President dismissed us. Guests were cheek to jowl with each other as they attempted to squeeze out between the tables. As I waited for JFK Jr. and his wife to pass in front of me, I realized that someone was grabbing my rear end and vigorously massaging it. I turned to find that it was Larry Flynt who thought that he was grabbing his date. “Uh, Mr. Flynt,” I said, “if you’re going to do that you’re going to have to buy me dinner.” Flynt turned around in his wheelchair and appeared to be truly shocked. He removed his hand and apologized.
I had my tux dry cleaned the next morning.
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