The top of the bill at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner April 29 was William Jefferson Clinton, the Wild Card. Second banana was Jay Leno.
The audience at the Washington Hilton included about 2,000 renowned print and television journalists, as well as celebrities from Hollywood and network television. I am grateful to The Washington Times for the invitation, because the evening changed my view of many in the Washington press corps and not for the better. In his May 3 column in the Times, Tony Blankley wrote that “almost alone” among the guests, he was “appalled both by President Clinton’s performance and by the positive response of the audience.”
He was not alone. During several standing ovations for the president, I remained seated. And although many laughed at his jokes until there were tears in their eyes, I was disgusted, not amused. I have greatly enjoyed Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Moms Mabley and Lenny Bruce (who was a friend); but they did not memorize someone else’s script. They improvised and they boldly and hilariously skewered the hypocrisies of the powerful in and out of politics. They did not as the president always does focus on the way one’s ability to rise from adversity increases one’s own glory.
Mr. Clinton’s performance was written by Mark Katz of the Soundbite Institute. Mr. Katz also ghosts for Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not notable for her wit. Video clips assembled by Phil Rosenthal, the creator and producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” were shown during the president’s monologue. For some reason the president neglected to acknowledge his helpers. I wonder if they did this pro bono, as a patriotic service.
The president’s stamp was on every line. The jokes that continually broke up the sophisticated diners were intended to cloak the ways he has dishonored his office by enabling him to be seen as “the poor soul” who is, after all, only human. Now that he has survived, partly by making people laugh at his bumbling misadventures (his routine that night has been widely televised), he shows what good sports we all are. And the president after all the mortification he has endured from Ken Starr and other prudish, malicious “right-wing zealots” shows that he is the best sport of all.
As Mr. Blankley astutely put it, “By gaining the laughter of the political and media elite in the room [and the American viewing audience], he implicates them as after-the-fact co-conspirators with him.”
During the evening, Mr. Clinton made a joke about Travelgate. Amid the laughter, I wondered if Billy Dale, who ran the White House travel office, was watching C-Span. Mr. Clinton ruined the man’s life by falsely accusing him of misuse of funds. I guess writer Mark Katz couldn’t come up with a joke about the president’s tampering with witnesses involved in the impeachment proceedings. Nor could he find any humor in the way Mr. Clinton deliberately denied due process elemental fairness to another citizen, Paula Jones, by deliberately lying during a deposition in her case. White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis might have spun it if he had been asked to work on the script.
But the correspondents who orchestrated the event much preferred Jay Leno, who poked at some sore spots in what will be the Clinton legacy, but never really darkened the overall tribute to The Comeback Kid. And Mr. Leno practically genuflected in praise of the president’s comic timing.
That night, I ran into a couple of journalists who also declined to join the ovations for the president. Particularly outraged was Matt Drudge, the “lonely pamphleteer” who is looked down upon by his more establishment colleagues. Mr. Drudge railed at what has become of the press, which used to bask in its critical independence but now cheers a bunco artist. Mr. Drudge told me that Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder fresh from his role in orchestrating the commando raid that extracted Elian Gonzalez chided such criticism of the merry correspondents’ dinner. “It’s all in good humor,” Mr. Holder told Mr. Drudge.
As the laughter of the audience rolled on, I thought of my mentors in journalism: George Seldes, I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton. I don’t think they would have joined the standing ovations for this president. And I remembered my first editor, William Harrison, whom I worked for when I was 19 years old. He ran a weekly newspaper for black readers, The Boston Chronicle. “There are three rules here,” he told me. “Accuracy, clarity, and don’t let the people you cover con you.”
At last I know who the inveterate Washington insiders are. They’re the press corps.