Reporters’ Party Makes George W. Bigger than Ozzy

WASHINGTON, DC-Last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner was a party in denial. Held five months into President George W. Bush’s term, the dinner was marred by the bitterness from Florida lingering in the ballroom.President Bush treated the media extravaganza likeanecessary evil. ColinPowell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice didn’t even show up. The big guests were cast members of The West Wing , and they only reminded everyone that You-Know-Who was gone.

But the past year has been a rigorous one for the Bush administration, one in which this new White House, challenged by war, claimed new ground in the media and culture at large. President Bush posed, shiny belt buckle exposed, with his war room on the cover of Vanity Fair . NBC’s Tom Brokaw visited for a prime-time hug. John Ashcroft-John Ashcroft!-played the piano like a pop star on the Late Show with David Letterman .

So you just knew that this May 4 evening at the Washington Hilton was going to be different. This year, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney entered the joint with a John Wayne swagger (even with Mr. Cheney using a crutch). Mr. Powell, Mr. Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice found time to show up, along with an array of Bush muscle-Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Andrew Card.

The confident show of force sent a message to the room. The order of the universe had shifted. Ozzy Osbourne, sitting with Greta Van Susteren, was a benign amusement. So was Harrison Ford, over there with Bloomberg News. There was no need to pander to Hollywood for this Correspondents Dinner. The real stars were the home team.

“In an ironic way,” said Representative Peter King of Long Island, “Sept. 11 made a lot of celebrities in the administration.”

The Bush team was certainly behaving like celebrities. There was grumbling that the administration had strong-armed media organizations about seating at the dinner; one report said USA Today lost Mr. Card’s company in retaliation for an unflattering story ( USA Today still found a reason to attend). After treating last year’s fête like enemy territory, the beefed-up White House used this one like a Hollywood junket-they were in control, their talent was unassailable, and we hacks were going to have to happily take what we were served.

They even brought their own comedian-Drew Carey, a Republican and, as he reminded everyone, a Marines reservist. “I was at your inaugural parade,” he told Mr. Bush. “It was so cold out there, I was getting booed every 25 feet, and all I was thinking, ‘Hey, it could be worse- it could be a Gore parade.'”

Mr. Carey did zing Mr.

Cheney with a genius Simpsons aside, mocking the Vice President as Monty Burns to Mr. Bush’s Homer Simpson: ” Smithers, ” Mr. Carey said in Mr. Burns’ nasal pitch, “who is that fairheaded young boy running along?

“Uh, that’s the President, sir,” Mr. Carey said, now imitating Smithers, the lowly assistant.

“Send him to me !”

But even that drew an approving laugh from the dais. Later, a White House staffer approached Mr. Carey and told him that one of his “biggest fans” was Mr. Card.

President Bush didn’t need to impress anyone with his remarks, so he pretty much mailed it in. Last year, he placated the wags with a self-effacing slide show-pictures of himself in college with a drink in his hand, reading Playboy and a biting reference to the Florida fiasco by showing his younger brother Jeb naked as a 5-year-old-and he did the same thing this time, though he toned down the frat-boy jokes and substituted his two dogs, Barney and Spot, for Jeb. He closed with a photo of Spot rolling joyously in a sunbeam on the Presidential Seal on the carpet in the Oval Office. “Is this a great country or what?” Mr. Bush said.

Sure, especially for the Republicans working the room. Earlier that night, Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a bright Republican star who’s been everywhere from CNN to Charlie Rose in recent months to discuss the dangers of bioterrorism, said he noticed many more Republicans at the 2002 dinner. “I’ve seen a lot more people who’ve come in from around the country who are Bush people,” he said. “Whether it’s to express support or express their pride, some sort of self-congratulation that they were right and they knew they were right, they deserved to be recognized for being right-it’s probably a little bit of all that.”

The new Republican luster had also attracted a better galaxy from Hollywood and starry points beyond. Besides Mr. Osbourne and Mr. Ford, there was Chloë Sevigny, Shannen Doherty, Dana Delany and gold-medal winner Apollo Ohno. It may not have been the Kodak Theater, but it was better than last year.

Chris Taylor, the Bloomberg News publicity director who wrangled many of the celebrities for the dinner and the company’s after-party at the Russian Trade Federation, said her job this year had been easier. “People were a little hesitant with the new administration, especially with what happened with the election,” Ms. Taylor said. “That was not a factor this year. People were very happy to come to Washington.”

Bloomberg News’ big catch was Mr. Ford, who once commanded a fictitious Air Force One, and the actor was mobbed as he arrived, alone, at the company’s pre-dinner cocktail party. The scene was like an Indiana Jones DVD release at a Wal-Mart. Ms. Taylor, who had enlisted two photographers to help shield Mr. Ford from the crush, said, “I have to get him out of here if it’s going to be like this or he’ll go home.”

The plan was to move Mr. Ford out of the center of the room to the patio outside, and back into the hotel. But it was raining, and no one had an umbrella. When Mr. Ford stepped outside under the eave, he was pinned in. So was a waiter carrying a tray of champagne glasses. “Madonna!” the waiter announced to the people crowding him. “Madonna! Big movie star! I see her in the next room.” It didn’t work. Soon his champagne glasses shattered on the floor.

Mr. Ford stayed quiet, agreeing to have his picture taken with the fewest words possible. A man approached him and pointed to a woman standing against the wall beside him.

“Peggy Noonan,” the man said. “Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter. Do you have two seconds?”

Mr. Ford did. “We ended up talking about our teenage sons,” said Ms. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist and G.O.P. tub-thumper. “He was very nice. And I think he felt a little bit shy because he was overwhelmed.”

Peggy Noonan had assuaged Han Solo. The tail really was wagging the dog.

Later, up the hill at the Russian Trade Federation, where Bloomberg News threw its annual after-party, the right continued to strut, even if the sponsor’s namesake was missing (Mr. Bloomberg instead attended a dinner in his honor at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater). The people having the most fun all seemed to be from places like Fox News and The Weekly Standard . Matt Drudge, scourge of the Clinton White House, was perky. Two years ago, Mr. Drudge had wandered around the dinner wearing a T-shirt of Elián Gonzalez at gunpoint under his tuxedo jacket. Now he was respectfully dressed to the nines and talking of his earlier encounter with President Bush.

“W. gave me a thumbs-up-literally-when I approached him,” Mr. Drudge said. “Clinton would have been like, ‘Get him the fuck out of here.'”

Sitting on a couch in a front room was Ann Coulter, the skinny blonde and former National Review Online columnist, holding the tail end of a drink that had been a mixture of “banana, strawberry and some sort of alcohol.” When asked if Right Young Things like herself felt some newfound popularity, Ms. Coulter wasn’t sure. “Drudge was saying during the Clinton years we were out, and now, with Bush, everyone wants to have their picture taken with us. But I think lots of people liked us during Clinton, too. I think people have just seen us a lot more.”

Then again, it helps to have pals in higher places. Ms. Coulter spotted lobbyist Dan Senor, a former colleague from her days working under former Senator and current Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, with Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. Leaping up, she pleaded with Mr. Fleischer to have Mr. Bush read and publicly carry her forthcoming book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right .

“I will do anything!” Ms. Coulter said to Mr. Fleischer. “I’ll swear to you you’ll like it! I will do anything!” (Later, when asked if Mr. Bush might honor Ms. Coulter’s request, Mr. Fleischer said, “Well, I don’t know. I have to read it first.”)

Ms. Coulter then asked Off the Record if she should divide the party up into “good guys and bad guys.”

“Media, bad,” Ms. Coulter said, pointing to no one in particular. “Bush administration, good.”

But other media types weren’t feeling as exalted. Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist and MSNBC talking head, derided the Bloomberg party as very Los Angeles.

The party, Mr. Alter said, used to have “a touch of L.A.-and [the Washington media] could feel like they were part of it.

“But now it’s like L.A.,” Mr. Alter said. “And in L.A., journalists are scum.”

Indeed, the discomfort of most of the media at a party that was supposed to be for them was palpable. This may not have been L.A. exactly-though Bloomberg had spent a fortune on ice-luge vodka shots, sushi bars, candy stands and lots of mirrors for the party-but within the usual Correspondents Dinner troika-government, Hollywood and media-the media stars had been downgraded.

On the other side of the room, Chloë Sevigny was asked if she agreed with Mr. Alter’s Los Angeles comparison. “Really? But it’s just all government ,” she said. Asked how she felt about partying with reporters, the Last Days of Disco and Kids star said: “It’s a little frightening.”

Ms. Sevigny described her political affiliation as an “undecided independent,” but said her banker-turned-D.J. brother Paul, her date for the night, was a “huge Republican.” Still, she said she was confused about her invitation to the dinner. “I thought I was invited to dinner in the White House,” she said. “I was really hoping to have my picture taken with the President.” (Later, Ms. Sevigny settled for the company of New Yorker writer John Cassidy, who chatted her up for much of the rest of the party.)

Ms. Sevigny said her favorite moment of the night was when Mr. Bush addressed Mr. Osbourne at the dinner. “He’s made a lot of big hit recordings: ‘Party with the Animals,’ ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ ‘Face in Hell,’ ‘Last Skies’ and ‘Bloodbath in Paradise,'” Mr. Bush said. “Ozzy, Mom loves your stuff.” The line brought Mr. Osbourne out of his seat-as well as many in the audience, who threw the MTV star devil-horn gestures.

“I loved hearing the President rattle off the titles of Black Sabbath songs,” Ms. Sevigny said. “That was the most subversive moment of the evening.”

Mr. Osbourne would steal most of the headlines the next morning. But Mr. Fleischer didn’t think he had upstaged the President. “In any other town,” Mr. Fleischer said. “But this is Washington-it’s a boring town.”

In the wee hours, the party moved down the hill to an après-après get-together at a suite in the Hilton. There you had to figure the banished Clintonites and Democrats-the ghosts of Correspondents Dinners’ past-could finally let their hair down.

But there was Beverly Hills, 90210 ‘s Shannen Doherty, G.O.P. bad girl, enthusing about her trip to the White House that day (eat your heart out, Chloë Sevigny). Ms. Doherty said she couldn’t have cared less about the White House itself-she wanted to see the stars who worked inside.

“I would have never stepped foot in the Clinton White House!” she said. “They were sleazy .”

 

No one should call it an exodus, but New York Times staffers are showing a new willingness to consider jobs outside The Times . The latest to leave are investigative editor Stephen Engelberg and Rome bureau chief Melinda Henneberger.

Just a few weeks after the investigative series on Al Qaeda he led won a Pulitzer for explanatory journalism, Mr. Engelberg announced that he will leave The Times to become the managing editor for enterprise reporting at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Ms. Henneberger is leaving to write a book on the search for a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco.

The two join Atlanta bureau chief Kevin Sack, Seattle bureau chief Sam Howe Verhovek, Sunday Styles deputy editor Ilene Rosenzweig and Styles writer Rick Marin in the roster of Times staffers who in the last few months have decided to pursue opportunities outside the world of The Times .

All the people who have left said they’ve done so for intensely personal reasons. But some at the newspaper said that post-9/11 soul-searching-as well as the uncertainty brought on by the change in the paper’s executive editors, from Joe Lelyveld to Howell Raines-have inspired some Times people to consider other employment.

Mr. Engelberg told Off the Record that 9/11 was the biggest influence in his decision to leave. “To have mass murder 50 blocks south of you, it makes yourself ask, ‘What are my priorities here?'” said Mr. Engelberg, who has been with The Times for 18 years.

Mr. Engelberg said he wanted more time with his family, which includes three daughters age 5 months to 9 years. What’s more, his wife, Gabrielle Glaser-a journalist who will join The Oregonian as a reporter-is originally from Oregon. Mr. Engelberg is also longtime friends with Sandy Rowe, The Oregonian ‘s editor.

For Ms. Henneberger, the decision to leave The Times came quickly. A 10-year Times veteran and Rome bureau chief since last August, Ms. Henneberger has recently been covering the Vatican’s response to the sex scandals among Catholic priests. “I’ve been up to my eyeballs in cardinals,” Ms. Henneberger said. But on April 21, The New York Times Magazine published her piece about an Italian art diagnostician, Maurizio Seracini, who’d found that a work credited to Leonardo da Vinci was really painted by someone else decades after da Vinci made the initial sketches. The tail end of the story touched on Mr. Seracini’s main quest, to find the da Vinci fresco Battle of Anghiari .

Shortly after the piece was published, Farrar, Straus & Giroux came forward and inquired whether Ms. Henneberger would be interested in writing a book about Mr. Seracini’s search. Ms. Henneberger said she had always been interested in writing a book, and that she believed this was a subject that would sustain her interest over time. “I’m just going to spend the next year or 18 months with this guy,” Ms. Henneberger said.

Ms. Henneberger also said she wasn’t thinking about Times culture when she decided to leave, but back in New York, colleagues were surprised to see her leave a plum beat like Rome.

One Times source said that the departures of Ms. Henneberger, Mr. Engelberg and others have also been a surprise for Times executive editor Howell Raines and other top newsroom managers. The Los Angeles Times has been particularly adept at swiping Times staffers, including Mr. Verhovek, Mr. Sack, dining editor Michaline Busico, former style-department editor John Montorio and former national editor Dean Baquet, now the L.A. Times ‘ managing editor.

“I think they’re shocked people are quitting,” said a Times source, who added that the departures are inspiring others at The Times to consider leaving.

“People are open to the idea that maybe there’s something better out there,” the source said. “The whole mind barrier is broken down.”

A Times veteran said that the issue of staff retention was becoming an issue. “It’s a big problem they’ll have to deal with,” the Times source said. “One is compensation, and the other is the siren call of television. People are being offered things that are much more lucrative and more synergistic in terms of other media. They’re used to playing this game against other newspapers-but they’re not used to playing in this cross-media world.”

A Times spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

– Gabriel Snyder

 

ESPN the Magazin e has hired Luke Cyphers, an award-winning investigative sports reporter with the Daily News .

Mr. Cyphers, brother of ESPN television reporter Steve Cyphers, had briefly been an editor at the magazine before he returned to the News in 2000. In the period since, he’s written on such serious topics as the use of the over-the-counter drug Ephedra by football players. He broke stories about molestation charges against famed Riverside Church basketball-program director Ernest Lorch and about grade-fixing for basketball players at Manhattan’s Frederick Douglass Academy. Last March, Mr. Cyphers, Michael O’Keefe and baseball writer Bill Madden disclosed a 1989 investigation by Major League Baseball into gambling by umpires at the same time it was pursuing betting allegations against Pete Rose.

Mr. Cyphers did not return a call for comment. However, Gary Hoenig, executive editor of ESPN , said the hire was part of a newfound commitment to long investigative features by a magazine best known for its wacky graphics. “I really feel that there’s room for that kind of work here,” Mr. Hoenig said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to start running a bunch of 20,000-word features that are dry as hell.”

-Sridhar Pappu