Press Preens for Prez

Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, had an order for New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

“Maureen Dowd,” Mr. Libby said, holding a shot of tequila, “drink this.”

Ms. Dowd declined. But a few feet away, Jill Abramson-the Washington bureau chief for The Times -explained that the shots were because “we’re the coolest people around.” Then, as if noting the unholy alliance, she added: “Cheney and The New York Times .”

Well, it was a concept. And it was late-in the early hours of April 27-at Bloomberg News’ after-party for the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington, D.C. It was a muggy, swampy Washington evening, especially inside the transparent plastic tent strapped to the party’s home, the Russian Federation trade ministry. It had also been an unusually sober night, and after President Bush’s short speech honoring Michael Kelly and David Bloom, after Ray Charles and no comedian, after the usual train of incongruous celebrity guests-Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kelsey Grammer-if the Vice President’s chief of staff and The Times ‘ Washington bureau chief wanted a tequila, they had earned it.

After all, if Russian and American generals toasted at Yalta, why couldn’t the press and the Bush administration toast at the Russian Federation Trade Ministry? Mr. Libby’s boss’ boss had had an astonishing April: George W. Bush had won the Iraqi war and also the media war. His White House had cajoled, contained, embedded and largely co-opted the press. The Correspondents’ Association Dinner-in which Presidents come and show their combative respect for the men and women who cover them, while reporters reveal themselves to be big, patriotic Lou Grant–like huggy-bears-was off its game. The war had taken all the sport out of it.

Vodka shots for everybody!

Richard Belzer, the dark comic Duke of Non-Self-Deception, in a Matrix -issue black trench coat, was tucked into the corner of the main bar.

“The press has become an arm of the state,” Mr. Belzer said. “The whole mind-set of the mainstream press seems to be strangely muted and cowardly. I was watching the BBC yesterday, and someone asked the question, ‘What will the Iraqis say when people in America can’t speak out without being criticized?’

The lingering sense that the media had been charmed by Mr. Bush during the 2000 campaign had not been derailed by the approach of war-especially after the President’s pre-war press conference, a softball affair that reeked of a rusty press corps.

And then the administration came up with the plan to give the press unfettered access to the battlefield. The decision paid remarkable dividends, both for the correspondents and the war planners: The press got its story and astonishing pictures, the White House got its story line. With the exception of a few questionable days on that first weekend in southern Iraq, it worked for both.

But what price glory? “These guys in the administration are sore winners,” Mr. Belzer said. “They’re in power and they’re still mean. They’re vindictive and thin-skinned and humorless.”

Officially, the party was supposed to be “somber,” not humorless. Word came early that there’d be no comic-past years featured Jay Leno, Don Imus, Darryl Hammond, Conan O’Brien. Instead the correspondents invited Ray Charles, a very great singer with a Republican track record-he sang at the 1984 Republican National Convention. There was no raucous prank-guest in the room-no Fawn Hall, Donna Rice, Paula Jones-it wasn’t that kind of night. There wasn’t even a Dixie Chick or Michael Moore. Washington was in fear or in thrall of the Bushes.

The standard cadre of celebrity guests-Jason Priestley, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, Bo Derek and a couple of West Wing actors-still drew flashes arriving at the Hilton. There were celebrity reporters, too. “I was there five weeks and I lost 15 pounds,” Wolf Blitzer said. “The Wolf Blitzer Kuwaiti desert diet: drink six liters of water a day and sweat like a pig.”

Elsewhere, editors served their own drinks at dinner pre-parties . Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said he felt the Bush administration’s relationship with the press was “pretty good.” Next door, Peter Beinart, gap-toothed editor of The New Republic , invited Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, along with Jerry Springer.

Steven Brill, author of After , founder of The American Lawyer , Court TV and Brill’s Content , now a pundit and Newsweek contributor, was wise-guying about the cable-and-network armchair generals who had irritated Dick Cheney so much. “They called them ‘former generals,'” Mr. Brill said. “I would have liked to see something under each general-were you fired, were you passed over, do you hate Tommy Franks because he got your job and you didn’t?”

Mr. Brill walked through the metal detector himself into the ballroom, where he sat next to Tina Brown, whose CNBC talk show will debut April 30. It was easy to take Mr. Brill’s quote about the generals and apply it to the two of them: What kind of TV bumpers would Mr. Brill and Ms. Brown have? Two media stars now sat in chiseled-down perspective after a collapsed economy and a war. Media glamour, which probably peaked when Mr. Bush’s troops struggled to win Florida after the 2000 election, had been humbled by the events of history. The Bush crowd had taken Washington, and Washington had taken the world. The glibocracy was free to analyze AOL Time Warner or the grounding of the Concorde or whatever they were interested in; the Bush people had grabbed their government back. Remember Bill, remember Hillary? It was like trying to remember kazoo music while the Marine band played.

George W. Bush stood in the shadows behind the flag during the national anthem, and when he emerged, snug and taut in a vest and tux, he dedicated the night to the memory of Washington Post columnist and Atlantic Monthly editor at large Michael Kelly and NBC News’ David Bloom, both of whom went to Iraq and didn’t return alive.

“Both men brought credit to a hard and worthy profession,” Mr. Bush said. “Their work is done and well done. We will remember them with admiration and we will remember them with affection. May God bless their souls.”

The President of the United States, full of dignity and de-smirked, spoke for about eight minutes, with no laugh lines and not an ounce of fat. Then Ray Charles’ band tuned for so long that by the time Mr. Charles, wearing a bronze suit with black lapels, was midway into “Route 66,” the crowd had begun to mutter above him and swivel for sightings of Jason Priestley. Mr. Bush tapped his fingers, as if presiding at a slightly slow Crawford barbecue. Mr. Brill flipped through his program, Ms. Brown scanned the room. In her final days at The New Yorker , she had written a “Talk of the Town” item conveying Bill Clinton’s blue-eyed sexual magnetism-none of that tonight. Far away from her, Mr. Bush sat on the dais, strumming his fingers.

For some, the destination was the Bloomberg after-party, at the Russian Federation Trade Ministry. Walter Isaacson, recently liberated from CNN and having moved to D.C. to run the Aspen Institute, was found in conference with National Review Online editor at large Jonah Goldberg and baby-faced Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash. They were asking him why he’d gone to CNN in the first place.

“I had no choice,” Mr. Isaacson said to them. “I never had been in a position where I had no choice. Gerry Levin finally called my wife and said I had to do this. I’m not somebody who does something for money. They kept raising the ante, raising the ante. I said, ‘You don’t get it-it’s not the money!’ And finally I said yes.”

Drew Carey was there, a Republican comic. Last year he had joked from the dais about Al Gore and compared Dick Cheney to Simpsons’ über -evil power-plant owner Monty Burns. Asked what jokes he might have told this year, Mr. Carey said: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Then he thought of one.

“I have one joke about when they toppled that statue of Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Carey said. “You know what they were yelling in Arabic? ‘Rodney King!’ Yeah, that’s pretty good.”

As for the Dixie Chicks, Mr. Carey had more to say about Entertainment Weekly -“I hate that fucking thing”-than the trio. “What the Dixie Chicks did doesn’t bother me,” Mr. Carey said. “But … they shouldn’t be surprised people are mad at them. You’re not allowed to say what you want and not have anybody call you on it. They were like, ‘We were only speaking our minds.’ Yeah, so were all the people saying they hate you.”

Sir Richard Branson, the elfin golden retriever/balloonist/Virgin mogul who has lately been coordinating relief flights into Iraq, was shown a trick by Randi Friedman, a publicist with Rogers & Cowan.

“I have something up my sleeve for you,” Ms. Friedman said.

“Oh, what have you got, darling?” Mr. Branson said, his eyes lighting up.

Ms. Friedman pulled a cigarette from her sleeve and handed it to Mr. Branson.

“I’m a non-smoker,” he said. “I’m the chairman of Parents Against Tobacco. And I have my drug pusher here.”

Later, Mr. Branson broke down, smoked and struck up a conversation with the gorgeous NBC White House correspondent Campbell Brown. He stole one of her high heels and stuck it in one of the Russian Federation’s chandeliers. After searching for him shoeless, she finally found him. “Look in the fucking chandelier,” Mr. Branson said.

“There’s no shoe up there,” Ms. Brown.

“Look at the fucking chandelier,” Mr. Branson replied.

“Oh my God,” she said, “is it up there?

The party was winding down as Ms. Brown draped her leg over Mr. Branson’s knee as he massaged her cuticles. President Bush had yet to declare an official end to the war in Iraq. But this looked like it could have been it. You could almost hear the tinkling of Uday’s abandoned piano.

“I have a house in France,” Richard Belzer had said earlier.

“That’s probably going to be where I end up.”