Playing the Palace

lehmann sherylcrow2 Playing the Palace“Let me live again!”

Cable talk-show host Joe Scarborough was standing near the front windows of Christopher Hitchens’ enormous apartment in Washington’s embassy-heavy Kalorama district. He was trying to sum up his reactions to the comedy stylings of Rich Little, who had by near-universal consent royally stunk up this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.

“We are still paying for the sins of Stephen Colbert,” Mr. Scarborough announced by way of further explanation.

Mr. Colbert, of course, delivered a scabrous attack from last year’s podium on the Bush administration’s war record and governing style. Mr. Little, very much by contrast, led off this evening’s entertainment with a long, digressive joke about the mental deficiencies of a trio of Canadian huntsmen.

Mr. Scarborough was just getting warmed up. “I think the life was beaten out of us” between this year and last, he said. He meant the press corps, the White House, the whole city. “There’s just a mood of total exhaustion.”

In Washington these days, editors impatiently wave away damning evidence of the U.S. Attorneys scandal in the Justice Department as just more D.C. business as usual—only to have the scandal dig in for weeks in the news cycle, and only to watch Congress take up the basic investigative work of confirming executive-branch abuses that the press had declared itself too jaded and worldly-wise to bother doing.

Ongoing Army inquiries into the friendly-fire death of former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman are unearthing more distressing evidence of an official military cover-up, the objective of which, naturally, was to storyboard a fancifully heroic account of Tillman’s final hours that again played the media for saps. It was Tillman’s family that broke the news on that one.

This is the music playing in the city’s ears the weekend of its Big Dinner.

You’d think the press corps’ meat would be the administration’s poison. But at the dinner, they all seem prematurely hung-over. With the Tillman family and the Congressional subcommittees doing the investigative work, and with the White House’s control of its reputation slipping, both lose together.

So what better time for a late–Roman Empire–style blowout that celebrates the press’ strange fraternity with the executive branch? If they’re gonna go down, then by God they’ll all go down together.

That Mr. Scarborough should see it this way is telling. He, after all, first came to Washington as an eager freshman member of the historic class of ’94 of Gingrich Republicans. Now he was forcefully holding forth at a Vanity Fair correspondents’ dinner after-party on the pending collapse of all things Washington.

“When the President announced the surge in Iraq, you had the L.A. Times immediately come out with a poll saying 78 percent of Americans opposed it,” he said. “That’s the end of something big here for all sorts of people: Bush and Rove, and—I’ve got to whisper this—Wolfowitz.”

He was whispering because the president of the World Bank—who was formerly one of the administration’s lead architects of the Iraq War—was standing somewhere behind him in the book-lined top-floor flat that columnist and party host Christopher Hitchens shares with his wife, Carol Blue.

Mr. Wolfowitz was now embroiled in a battle to save his World Bank post amid disclosures that he approved an outsized pay raise to his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, also an employee of the bank.

It was an evening full of those kinds of frayed-nerve near-misses and fraught encounters. A new mood of confrontation was clearly starting to infect the kissy-face exclusivity that usually dominates these gatherings.

The evening’s big news, for instance, didn’t concern any of the anodyne chuckles billowing up from Mr. Little’s monologue; it was, rather, the mosh-pit-style face-off between deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove and rock diva Sheryl Crow just as the dinner proper was getting under way.

Ms. Crow was in town with her friend Laurie David, the wife of Larry, the actor-writer-impresario behind HBO’s hit comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Ms. David had produced Al Gore’s global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and Ms. Crow, an activist ally in the battle to contain global warming, grilled Mr. Rove—an invited guest of The New York Times—about this White House’s neglect of the climate crisis.

Mr. Rove told Ms. Crow that the Bush administration was actually pursuing sound policy goals on the issue, and made to turn back to his table.

At which point, Ms. Crow is said to have tried to summon him back for some more explication.

First she touched his elbow, eliciting from Mr. Rove the testy response: “Don’t touch me!” She then told the ur-consultant, “You work for me,” at which point he shot back: “I don’t work for you; I work for the American people.”

The statement seemed to imply that the Missouri-born Ms. Crow was a lesser patriot than he.

Much shouting and gesticulating then ensued between the consultant and the chanteuse. No one seems clear on how the contretemps wound down, or who ended up besting whom, but it’s clear that this dispute over true American citizenship was of far greater political moment than Mr. Little’s wan observational glosses on Canada’s cement-headed national traits.

The Rove-Crow run-in also furnished an exceptionally pointed contrast to Mr. Little’s “Zippy the Pinhead” meets the Capitol Steps mantra: “Poke a little fun / In Washington-ton-ton!”

Of course, by Mr. Rove’s restrictive definition, the American People are nowhere to be seen at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Just two weeks earlier, the venerable institution of D.C. pundit exhibitionism known as Imus in the Morning—where politicians go to act like American People—was bounced off of CBS Radio and MSNBC after the shock jock made bigoted remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

But Mr. Rove made a nice show of being one, his hand firmly over his heart as he sang out loudly to the National Anthem. The President had the same American posture, but he wasn’t singing, which at least put to rest the notion that his lips only and always move when Mr. Rove is speaking.

Fun hasn’t been at a premium in this city for some time. The bottom has fallen out of its conventional-wisdom market. At least when Mr. Colbert lobbed grenades from the podium, there was the brief sense that this evening—and the sick social contract that underwrites it—still mattered.

Matters were scarcely helped by the news that began the week: the horrific massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech University, some 260 miles
southwest of Washington. Rumors swirled at the evening’s pre-dinner cocktail gatherings that the President sought to pull out of the proceedings entirely on the grounds that the night’s anticipated merry-making would be an even greater lapse of taste than usual coming just on the heels of the national day of mourning for the V.T. victims across the nation’s college campuses.

Steve Scully, the C-SPAN host who chairs the correspondents’ association, said he didn’t know of any direct talk of a Bush withdrawal, but did confirm that between Tuesday and Wednesday, the White House had reappraised the tone of the event. The President elected to forgo the usual japery with a terse announcement that in the face of the week’s crushing tragedy, he had “decided not to be funny.”

Once the Capitol Hilton ballroom doors finally disgorged the revelers into the warm evening’s trio of signature after-party destinations—the Hitchens-hosted Vanity Fair do, the Capitol File celebration at Colombia’s ambassadorial residence, and the Bloomberg News soiree at the Costa Rican embassy—the delicate froth of sociability that had kept the day’s schmoozefests pitching forward was starting to break down.

The Bloomberg gala was predictably overlit, gaudy and conceptually gnomic: Greeting the crowd as it entered were a battery of conga players and three catering workers attired in white terrycloth bathrobes, dispensing miniature champagne bottles out of a clawfoot bathtub filled with ice. At a nearby table, fluted glasses and straws were dispensed—by far the more popular delivery method for bubbly at such scene-making affairs.

The idea, one person explained, was for each of the party’s rooms to suggest the room of an actual house (without specifying what sort of home would feature a front door opening directly into a bathroom). The main party area was a split-level affair, with a curiously backlit white display of paper streamers dominating the main room, neatly catching the event’s pointlessly fussy mood while summoning up woozy associations with the departure lounge in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Upstairs was a margarita bar and a listless crowd efforting forth dance moves with the general enthusiasm of Alberto Gonzales behind a witness stand. A full block’s worth of partygoers strained in line for the velvet ropes to part and permit them entry, but even their half-angry demeanor seemed livelier than the dutiful fun awaiting them within.

The Beltway media elite was at least able to hear itself talk at the Hitchens gathering a few blocks north. But that just made the evening’s bitter reference tones resound that much more distinctly. A pair of women (one of whom, I should disclose, was my wife, Time.com Washington editor Ana Marie Cox) pounced on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to give an accounting of the court’s controversial ruling upholding the federal ban on partial-birth abortions. The justice initially demurred with the expected ex officio disclaimer, “I don’t discuss those things.” But the women—who I have good reason to know can be fearsomely persistent, especially when in their cups—wore down his resistance. They insisted that the procedure is performed in exceedingly rare instances, usually when a mother’s health is in jeopardy. When the justice yielded no ground beyond the recommendation that Congress would be the best venue to pursue a more constitutionally hale effort to keep the procedure legal, things got a bit personal.

“Do you have any daughters?” one of the interlocutors demanded.

“I have four,” Justice Scalia replied, noting that the eldest was 28.

“Well, what do they think of abortion rights?” the woman’s companion wanted to know.

The justice explained that not only had he refrained from voicing is general views on the subject, but he had never discussed it with his adult daughters. Then he added that since they were raised and educated as Catholics, they would honor the church’s moral teachings on the subject.

“Don’t you think that one of the main reasons they don’t discuss it with you is that you’re a justice on the Supreme Court?” his questioner continued, her voice rising in rhetorical emphasis at the end.

Justice Scalia smiled a bit coyly. “You don’t know my daughters.”

Things went on in this vein for a good hour, with Justice Scalia graciously explicating his judicial philosophy of originalism (not, he insisted, strict constructionism) and repeatedly invoking the legislative branch as the proper forum to sort out these delicate issues. When one of his questioners said, “Come on now—just between us: Thomas isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed,” Justice Scalia leapt to defend his colleague’s intellectual honor. He insisted that his bench mate was “the most misunderstood member of the court” and pointed to the formative trauma of his scandal-mongering confirmation hearings 16 years earlier.

It was an odd patrician grace note, the notoriously tough-minded keeper of conservative court orthodoxy decorously defending the reputation of a much-derided colleague. It was as though a curtain suddenly rose up on a tableau from the old Washington salon society, where what one thought and what one said remained very compartmentalized propositions.

The trio of debaters, sensing little forward progress from here, genially disbanded not long afterward—but that didn’t quite suffice as the final word on the passing of the genteel spirit of establishment Washington into something far more belligerent. That honor should probably go to the two conservative journalists who had been introduced to a young woman en route to the Bloomberg affair. One of them jestingly decided that they should introduce themselves as Rich Little’s comedy writers.

Without missing a beat, the woman blurted out, “You were awful!” and walked away.

Which was perhaps the first sign that official Washington may just have begun to sense that the game was up for the old regime.

The next morning at brunch-time, the cherry blossoms were out in force, and Washington lurched out of bed, hungry for more.