WASHINGTON, D.C.–It was after 2 a.m. on Sunday, April 29–the early morning hours after the 87th annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner–and the well-dressed media types (along with a smattering of politicians) were beginning to filter out of Michael Bloomberg’s jiggy after-soirée at the Trade Ministry of the Russian Federation.
“This is not a Washington party,” said Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., a former top aide to Senator Daniel Moynihan who is now a producer of the NBC drama, The West Wing . “It’s mostly Washington people, but there’s more New York people here than ever. It’s spiritually not a Washington party.”
It was true: This party felt more Lotus than Lincoln. Big bucks had been spent; there was a sushi bar, a vodka bar, a dessert bar and more than a few bar bars, too. There was a New York D.J., Mark Ronson, spinning soul music as a gaggle of avant-garde go-go dancers bobbed and twisted in slow, rhythmic motions. There were a few celebrities–Rob Lowe! Julia Stiles! There was the dapper host, Mr. Bloomberg, who may or may not be running for Mayor of New York City.
Still, there was the unshakable sense all night that this kind of party was dead, that this town is no longer entranced by New York players, their celeb parties, and least of all their mighty media. It was clear that after eight giddy years of unchecked influence during the Bill Clinton era, the media’s lengthy reign had come to an abrupt halt with the arrival of President George W. Bush–a man who managed to succeed without giving a damn about the media, period.
And that gave this year’s correspondents’ night–in the Clinton years, a festive, guilty-pleasure collision of Hollywood glam, Washington power and media might–a decidedly gamy scent, like an anniversary party for a baseball team that won a World Series decades ago. Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, appeared to be the only delegate from the Bush administration to show for the Bloomberg party, and there was a handful of Congressmen on hand, but that was about it. The Hollywood celebs were largely represented by Rob Lowe and his West Wing actor pals–and despite their continued success in the ratings, they, too, had a dated, Clintonian odor.
“Ninety-nine percent of official Washington is not here,” Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. said, surveying the crowd. “They do not give a shit about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. They do not give a shit about this party, and they certainly don’t give a shit about the cast of any television show.”
Mr. Bush, of course, had long since gone to bed, and he probably wouldn’t have minded napping through the entire evening as well. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner may be many things–a tacky display of media decadence, the most evident sign of the shortening distance between the news media and entertainment, a queasy festival of self-congratulation or, simply, a relatively nice way to spend an evening–but this year it was definitely not the mutual back-scratching society it once was.
Earlier that night at the Washington Hilton, at 6:30 p.m.–a half hour after the bars had opened at a multitude of pre-dinner cocktail parties–the Correspondents’ Dinner was still looking for a center. There was no sweet spot yet. At first people clustered at the entrance to the Hilton, where the paparazzi were getting antsy with the slim pickings of celebrities trundling out of black limousines. Why, there was Wendie Malick looking tall and beautiful. What show is she on? Just Shoot Me! Of course! Ms. Malick posed for the photographers just before Survivor Richard Hatch–talk about your fading influencers–got out of his limo. Mr. Hatch wandered around unnoticed before his picture was finally snapped. And, yes, the man in that white suit over there really was M.C. Hammer!
Much of the celebrity-wrangling duties of the evening had gone to Mr. Bloomberg. And if Julia Stiles and Rain Phoenix, who Ms. Stiles brought along, are to be trusted, booking Hollywood names is a bit more difficult when Bill Clinton isn’t at the dais.
“All I know is that my girlfriend Julia invited me, and I was in the middle of nowhere and I said O.K.,” said Ms. Phoenix, the sister of Joaquin and the late River and an actress herself. She added she was worried that she was somehow going to be showing support for Mr. Bush. “I was frightened by that.”
Ms. Phoenix added that she only went “because I asked my press agent if it was O.K. to a) not be a Republican, b) not like President Bush. I was going anyway, just to be with Julia.”
Ms. Stiles, who had been tied up with a fan, turned back to the conversation warily. “You have diarrhea of the mouth,” she said to Ms. Phoenix. “You’ve gotta like”
“All I was saying was that there were hardly any famous people at one time, and now suddenly it’s become a cluster fuck of famous people,” Ms. Phoenix protested.
“It’s intriguing,” Ms. Stiles added diplomatically.
“It is, it’s so beautiful to watch all these dorks walk around,” Ms. Phoenix said.
A middle-aged woman pulled Ms. Stiles away: “I have to say,” the woman said, “you could probably be the daughter of my roommate in college ….”
Later, as the 2,000 dinner attendees ate their petit filet mignon and grilled salmon steak, a crowd formed toward the front of the room, just in the aisle next to Mr. Bloomberg’s A-list table, which included The Sopranos ‘ Lorraine Bracco, Senator Fred Thompson, Susan Molinari and Charlie Rose. Gawkers gathered for a while, but the crowd eventually moved a couple of tables up to the velvet rope across from the dais, where they try to yelp questions at Mr. Bush, who was now nestled on the dais. Mr. Bush largely just smiled back and made nice noises.
Far away in the ballroom, at Table No. 243 (effectively the nosebleeds), the devilish Business Week managed to land both Ralph Nader and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris for their table. The two, sitting on either side of a young brunette, were passionately discussing something over their grilled shrimp appetizer. Journalists spotting this unholy dinner alliance began to dub No. 243 the “Kill Al Gore” table.
When he finally came to the podium, George W. Bush was fairly charming. The digs he took at the press were gentle–”Laura and I are delighted to be here with all the major leaguers”–and he was self-deprecating, his usual media tack. His 10-minute speech took the form of a slide-show presentation–old family snapshots that furnished the punch lines for Mr. Bush’s deadpan set-ups. “Somehow the press has gotten the wrong idea, that I was a smart-aleck party guy,” the President said, just before a picture cued up of a young Dubya, a drink in his hand, sneering at the camera while his father peered in, aghast, from the corner of the screen. “This is an unfair perception,” he continued. “See, in college, I actually did a lot of independent reading.” Up came a picture of a college-aged Mr. Bush looking intently at a copy of Playboy .
Hardy-har. Mostly, Mr. Bush’s 10-minute routine revolved around family: funny pictures of his mother and father, and–the hit of the night–a politically charged jab at Mr. Bush’s brother Jeb. “Some people have asked me … if the vote recount left any hard feelings between my brother Jeb and me. Not a bit. In fact, here’s a picture of the Governor of Florida.” And on the screen came a full-frontal shot of a 5-year-old Jeb Bush. The media crowd ate it up, but this was the sort of thing that you expect at a wedding reception or family birthday party.
Saturday Night Live ‘s Darrell Hammond followed Mr. Bush. Though comics have been known to go a little hard on Presidents sitting at the dais– ahem, Don Imus–Mr. Hammond proved to be a softy, going as gentle on Mr. Bush as the President was on himself. This would not be a repeat of the 1971 dinner, when Richard Nixon wrote to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman that he would never go back. “The dinner, as a whole, was probably the worst of this type I have attended. The audience was drunk, crude and terribly cruel,” Nixon wrote.
But no … Mr. Hammond stood up and, following a theme of the evening, expressed his awe at standing next to Mr. Bush. “Despite what I do for a living and where I do it, it’s an honor and a privilege to perform for the President of the United States,” he said by way of introduction.
“That said”–he paused and then laid into an old target, Mr. Clinton–”I would like to momentarily revisit the former Presidency. I feel if nothing else, it was a fun Presidency. Like, really fun. Like. every day he’d be in a different jam. And not a fender-bender. The kind of stuff James Bond can’t get out of. You know what I mean? He gets caught on camera lying–and not a camera, but by all cameras. On Planet Earth. How does he get out of it? By debating the meaning of the word is .”
The audience burst into laughter. From there on out, Mr. Hammond primarily stuck to impressions and material he had already done for Saturday Night Live . He did only two jokes about Mr. Bush, and one of them was during his impression of Jay Leno. Said Mr. Hammond: “I did this night show a few weeks ago and Leno said, ‘You know, apparently he’s a very interesting man, George Bush, but if you think about it, all he really did was move back into his parents’ old house.’”
It was a pretty gentle jab, and Mr. Bush, grateful for the comedic pardon, laughed like a good sport. Then Mr. Hammond moved on to (where else?) Al Gore and two of the more memorable bits from SNL ‘s Presidential-debate sketches–a high-water mark for the show. After a long monologue on Mr. Gore and his “lock box,” the audience and Mr. Hammond and Mr. Bush–leaning back with his hand to his forehead–all cracked up in unison.
“Can I do some more of him?” Mr. Hammond asked. “I like doing him. I worked a year to do the damn guy and then you beat him. I’m sure you don’t mind.”
Mr. Hammond also did the bit about that now-infamous 94-year-old woman from Sparta, Tenn., who was inflicted with soo-oo many diseases that her prescription-drug bill reached $113 million per week. “Under my plan, her prescription drugs would be covered. Under my opponent’s plan,” Mr. Hammond said, gesturing over to Mr. Bush, “her house would be burned to the ground.”
The only semi-current joke about Mr. Bush came towards the end, when Mr. Hammond began reading some phony “telegrams to the President.”
“The Chinese crisis is dying down, Mr. President; you did an admirable job of bringing those brave men and women back home, Mr. Cheney,” Mr. Hammond said. “But I did hear a rumor that the first time you met with the Chinese ambassador, you brought your laundry. That’s not true, is it? That’s not right.”
Then Mr. Hammond got lost in his notes and started off on a set of women-and-men jokes. It was a strange performance.
Later that night, up the hill at the Bloomberg party, Mr. Hammond was standing behind a railing smoking a cigarette while fans walked up.
He said he walked up to the podium not knowing exactly what he was going to be doing. “I wrote more material than I needed, because it’s really unnatural to have the power structure of Planet Earth in a room, and then you’ve got to make them laugh even though you never met any of them,” Mr. Hammond said in a voice–if it is his normal speaking voice–that sounds very close to his Clinton impersonation. The plan, he said, was to move around among topics and see what went over well. “I got lucky early on with the Clinton stuff and then the rest of it, I had an idea of who they were.”
The consensus of the post-dinner chattering was that Mr. Hammond had gone way too easy on Mr. Bush. Mr. Hammond admitted that, indeed, he’d been scared about going too far.
“I was afraid of George Bush,” he said. “He’s the new President. I have no relationship with him at all; I don’t know him yet.”
An enthusiastic fan walked up to Mr. Hammond. “Excellent job! Awesome!” he said.
“Thank you, sir. God bless you,” Mr. Hammond responded in an Alabama accent.
Ms. Stiles, with Ms. Phoenix in tow, came up next.
“Hi, Julia,” Mr. Hammond said.
The two young beauties said they had been working hard to get people to dance. They had been out on the floor for an hour or so, going back and forth to Mr. Ronson–who Ms. Stiles, star of Save the Last Dance , described as “cute”–to request OutKast and the Notorious B.I.G.
Pretty soon, the place was teeming with dancing journalists–and yes, that phrase is just as scary to watch as it is to write, believe us–stretching and sweating and staining tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Even CNN correspondent Bob Franken went for a spin on the dance floor.
Ms. Stiles, who got the chance to meet Wolf Blitzer of CNN (who she says mistook her for Kate Hudson), was pretty proud of her handiwork. “I want credit for starting the bar mitzvah!” she said.
At 3:30 a.m., with the music off, the lights on and the bartenders packing up the bar, Off the Record gamely tramped back down the hill to the Washington Hilton for an after- after-party in a suite with about a dozen of the attendees. Room service was closed for the night and there are no minibars at the Hilton, so a box full of beer and vodka was smuggled out from the Bloomberg bars. Everything was sociable until about 5 a.m., when just six or so people were left in the room, including Mr. Hammond, MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield, the New York Post ‘s Richard Johnson and party photographer Patrick McMullan.
Sure enough, that was when the cops showed up. The two officers stood holding open the door to the room, making it clear that this party was over. (In fairness, they were very patient, considering the scene inside the room resembled a gaggle of teenagers busted on prom night for sipping vodka out of Snapple bottles.)
At that point, Mr. Hammond had had enough with Washington, D.C. He announced to Ms. Banfield that he was going to hire a car to drive him back to Manhattan right then and there. She, however, was having trouble finding her trademark glasses. Standing out in the hall, Mr. Hammond begged her to just leave the specs behind.
“Ashleigh, I’ll buy you another pair in Manhattan,” he said in his Southern voice that again veered into his impression of Mr. Clinton. “Ashleigh, the law is here. It’s time to go .”
This week, as the New York Post gloatingly celebrated its circulation gains in print–a week after owner Rupert Murdoch canned Xana Antunes for reasons including his belief that she hadn’t driven circulation up enough– fear settled in at the Daily News. Over in Mort Zuckerman’s neighborhood, word spread that layoffs were in store for 2 percent of the newspaper’s work force, estimated to be from 1,500 to 2,000. That would translate to between 30 and 40 jobs cut.
A spokesman for the News said the layoffs were being spurred by “slowing economy and rising newsprint costs,” but there isn’t a newspaper in the land that hasn’t known about increases in both of those costs for months. Coincidentally or not, the news of the layoffs at the News comes on the heels of new Audit Bureau of Circulations figures for the six months ended March 31, 2001, figures that show the News lost 2 percent of its daily circulation since the year before and is down to 716,095 copies a day.
The New York Post , meanwhile, reported a 50,675 gain, to 487,219 copies a day.
The New York Newspaper Guild sounded the alarm about the News cutbacks first, publishing an announcement on April 30 on its Web site that around 20 positions in its bargaining group would be eliminated. How much say the Guild will have in all that–if any–is unclear. The Guild, which represents editorial, circulation and advertising employees, has not had a contract with the News since Mort Zuckerman purchased the paper in 1993. This past January, the Guild and the News reentered contract negotiations.
“It’s pretty grim,” said union shop steward and News columnist Juan Gonzalez. “You have to be concerned, since there are no clear determined criteria, like seniority, other than who they decide they don’t need. So everyone’s worried.”
According to Mr. Gonzalez, the ax could fall haphazardly, from recent Daily News Express hires to reporters with a 20-year seniority. “We’re urging them to do voluntary retirement, but we don’t know whether they’ll listen to us,” he said. “The fair thing would be to first offer anybody who wants to leave, rather than just pick people.” This, he said, was less than likely. “Maybe lightning will strike.”
According to a spokesman for the paper, the News will begin laying people off later this week.