The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the closest Washington gets to Oscar weekend. It’s the annual blowout at the Hilton where the D.C. press corps get to schmooze with celebrity guests and administration big shots.
There’s usually a fair amount of glitz on offer, but movie stars are so out of sync with Dubya’s Washington that practically the only ones who showed up were minor novelty offerings like the star of “The Bachelorette” and Bo Derek, the Republican war horse. At Oscar weekend you have Nicole Kidman to look at. Here you had to make do with Alan Greenspan. The Newsweek pre-party was where the action was. I found myself in a dark corner with the brooding neocon ideologue Richard Perle — known as the godfather of the war — trying to have a light exchange about Shiites.
Traditionally in years past, the president gives a humorous speech (or tries to) and then gets lambasted for a good 20 minutes by an A-list comedian. This could get edgy. (And who really likes roasts anyway? The roastee laughs heartily, then lies awake at night boiling for revenge.) In 1996 at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner the radio loudmouth Don Imus appalled the crowd with crude sex jokes about the Clintons, who were sitting 10 feet away, not even pretending to enjoy themselves.
Nobody wanted to risk any jokes at this eggshell moment. In the wake of the journalistic casualties of war the program had been devised to be low key and “appropriate” — which meant that the audience of Beltway hacks and talking heads blathered, tablehopped and networked through all the tributes to their dead colleagues, Mike Kelly and David Bloom. Perhaps Bush, with his low opinion of the press, knew they would because when he got up to speak he made the right decision to eulogize the two journalists again. The crowd shut up this time. Was this out of sudden respect for the dead or awe of the power pecking order? What a shower. Instead of a comedian, the entertainment was the great Ray Charles, especially chosen perhaps so he wouldn’t see half the room get up and leave before he finished.
Even with the Washington Marine Corps band, star power is strangely lacking in the Bush administration. Washington now is so uxorious, prayerful and intent on early nights. It lacks the danger gene of the Clinton years. It’s hard to get a rush out of the sight of the diminutive Paul “Wolfowitz of Arabia” Wolfowitz, surrounded by three enormous bodyguards, marching ostentatiously down the center aisle to the front exit in the middle of Ray Charles’ set. Bush himself can be impressive when he is not doing gravitas. I met him at a Republican governors’ dinner before he became president and he had an eager directness that was very beguiling. In an informal one hour TV special last week with Tom Brokaw he came off as manly, accessible and sane. But you never see that in his set pieces. Perhaps they over-prepare him. As soon as he gets in front of a United States flag he turns into Alfred E. Neuman. But Democrats in disarray are the ones who are worrying.
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I did the first taping of my TV show that aired last night. Amazing how wildly different it is to have a live guest instead of the pretend ones I’d war-gamed against. In the first segment the guests were Barry Diller, the invincible entertainment mogul, in conversation with the New Yorker writer and author of “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell. Diller arrived first. Even though I’ve known him for years, when I opened the door of the greenroom and saw him sitting there on his cellphone vibrating with contrarian vitality and unpredictable views I felt completely unhinged. It didn’t get any easier. When Gladwell arrived he looked impossibly clever and cool sauntering down the corridor under his wedge-shaped afro. There must have been a good reason why I had decided to team these two people together in the first place. It was some creative high-concept rationale about them both being mavericks in different spheres. I must have been insane to invite two of the smartest people I know to come all the way out to a shakedown cruise in a TV studio in New Jersey. Was I on drugs? I should have booked Celine Dion.
Successful TV performing requires rapid-fire ADD simultaneously with intense focus. I am trying to rewire my synapses. TV people are an entirely different breed from print people. Print people like to think they are more thoughtful but that’s only because they can afford to think slowly. Editors and writers can doodle around for weeks without doing much. On TV, if the interview doesn’t come through, there’s an empty chair. There’s no time for honing and thumb sucking. The rough drafts are on the air.
The worst thing about TV is that the next day everyone from the guy in the dry cleaners to old school friends you’ve taken years to shed offers an opinion. The instant intimacy of the box allows instant candor. I learnt this after I did a guest spot years ago presenting Film Night for the BBC. I was shopping for bananas in the fruit shop in Pimlico when the sales assistant opined cheerfully, “Saw your show last night. Really sucked, didn’t it?” Whereas it’s unlikely anyone will say this — though plenty may think it — if your piece in the New York Times is a dog. This makes for a certain brave authenticity in TV people. They know that failure in their world is the only thing that isn’t fake. The upside is, memories are short and they get to do it again.
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