Washington — Last Saturday, after awakening at 5:00 a.m. in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains to hunt wild turkey, I showered and dressed in black tie for one of my favorite Washington evenings, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. If I did not see any turkeys during the matutinal hunt, I was guaranteed to see them in abundance during the vespertine melee that this distinguished gathering has become. In all of New York there is nothing quite like it, though you can find an approximation of it on the Virginia countryside. I have in mind the county fair, at least the county fair that is held in an exceptionally rowdy rural county.
Notwithstanding the dinner jackets and sleek evening gowns, the White House Correspondents’ dinner is always boisterous, sweat sodden, and very stupid. It is supposed to bring together the elite of the nation’s press for a salute to the President and a lot of joshing between the White House and the press corps. Yet at some point about fifteen years ago, the High and Mighty of the White House Correspondents’ Association began to notice that something was missing from the event. They could not quite figure out what it was, but they sensed a problem. Those of us who follow the press with an amused eye knew what the problem was. The Washington press corps is stupefyingly boring. Almost all of its members think alike, if they think at all; and what they think is that they are very important people, so important that it does not matter that they are frequently wrong — viz. their recent episodic pessimism regarding the Three Week War.
Whether the High and Mighty recognized that their problem was that they were filling the Washington Hilton with morticians I cannot say, but by now anyone familiar with Washington knows their solution. It was to invite celebrated goofballs such as Monica Lewinsky and Ozzy Osbourne, and Movie Stars and TV Stars. I never fail to attend, though on my excursions I need a guide to point out the Stars. Do you know who Kelsey Grammer might be, or Richard Schiff? They looked like Manhattan nightclubbers to me.
My endeavor every year is to reconnoiter the pre-dinner receptions that are put on by the media giants. In suites that open on a common courtyard the receptions mix the pols, the press, the goofballs, and the Stars. After an hour of drinks, the attendees squirm off to the ballroom through a narrow corridor that soon becomes reminiscent of a rush hour subway. Once in the ballroom, seated at tables of ten or so, they continue to gabble until the President is toasted, whereupon he responds, often with a slide show. You expected Demosthenes? Meanwhile I continue my reconnaissance. What I try to discover every year is whether the Stars really are more thrilling than the dumpy journalists. My conclusion is that they are not. Perhaps the first two or three female Stars give off a jolt, but really after a point one must admit: if you have seen one décolletage you have seen them all.
The Stars are as boring as the press. What passes for wit from them are lines such as this from Mr. Bradley Whitford: “I heard Bush was pretty funny last year, which surprised me because whenever people ask me if you could do a ‘West Wing’ with a Republican administration, my standard answer is no, because they’re not sexy and they’re not funny.” Where have we heard that line before?
This year President George W. Bush did not even attempt to be funny or sexy. He was dignified, stopping just short of being solemn. He remembered the deaths of two American journalists in the recent war, Michael Kelly of the Atlantic and David Bloom of NBC. He reminded the audience that since he appeared last year “We have seen a dictator defy the world, and we have seen a coalition of free nations give its answer.” The President’s speech was eloquent. Republicans may not be sexually funny, but not since the Kennedy Administration has a Democratic Administration equaled their speech writing teams — or their competence in office. Lyndon Johnson? Jimmy Carter? Bill Lewinsky?
Usually, the White House Correspondents’ dinner features entertainment from a comedian. This year was different. Owing perhaps to the gravity of a time of war, the High and Mighty invited the aged but venerable Ray Charles, who sang a mixture of country and blues with as much style and panache as ever. He ended with his own toast to the President:
“I like enchiladas and old El Dorados that shine
And old friend the guitar and songs and women and wine
They say that I’m livin too fast but I’m feelin fine
And I just keep easin along in three-four time.”
My hunt of last Saturday was rewarded. I like Ray Charles, and the Stars and the pols would have too, if only they could have cut their gabble and listened to him, as the President did.