Guess who's not coming to dinner

As the once-prestigious White House Correspondents dinner mutates into a grotesque symbol of the state of American journalism, the New York Times decides to boycott.

Published April 24, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

The signs of spring have returned to Washington. The rag-colored sky has dissolved into a soothing powder blue, the cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen, and every other day, it seems, one of the city's myriad reporters associations hosts its annual pat ourselves on the back-athon. Everyone from the Gridiron Club to the Radio and Television Correspondents Association hosts an annual dinner, but next on tap is the granddaddy of them all, the gala hosted by the White House Correspondents Association.

The WHCA dinner has become a hot ticket around Washington, and a command performance for the president himself. The event brings in about 2,700 people each year, and every sitting president since Calvin Coolidge has attended at least one of the dinners. But there will be something missing from this annual convocation of D.C.'s literati. This year, the New York Times is boycotting.

"I just think the whole thing has become unseemly," says Michael Oreskes, Washington bureau chief of the Times. "It's the whole circus atmosphere. It's the whole sense of bacchanalia."

Though the Times' decision to stay at home and wash its hair that night is (predictably) inspiring accusations of holier-than-though prissiness, Oreskes is right. In recent years, the dinner has become a farce, as reporters and their political sources blur the professional boundaries and join together for a self-referential nudge-nudge, wink-wink send-up of the last year's political scandals. But perhaps it's only fitting that the dinner has become a grotesque spectacle that makes it the perfect metaphor for modern journalism.

Just months after the Times helped "semen-stained dress" enter the American vernacular, for instance, seems a strange time for Oreskes to take the moral high ground. The Times' decision to boycott is a reaction to the spectacle the dinner has become in recent years, with the annual guest list including Hollywood stars and quasi-celebrities like Paula Jones, who attended the dinner last year as the plus one for Paul Rodriguez, the editor of the conservative Insight magazine. This year's guest list includes Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who will be the guest of George magazine. Chain-smoking she-devil Lucianne Goldberg is also rumored to be on the guest list.

Ironically, the WHCA dinner's new reputation as an upscale gross-out contest is all Michael Kelly's fault. That's right: smart, self-righteous, talented Michael Kelly, the editor of the bible of Washington substance, the National Journal.

Kelly's the one who gave the annual event the initial shove down the slippery slope. By inviting the sexy, scandalous Fawn Hall to the dinner in 1987, Kelly -- then 30 and a reporter for the Baltimore Sun -- was the first to bring what former White House Press Secretary Jody Powell calls "tacky guests" to the dinner. It's been all downhill from there.

"Frankly, we're doing the profession a disservice," Oreskes said. "Publishers are using this to promote the commercial interests of their publications and the collateral damage is a black eye to the journalism profession. This year it's time to change course."

According to Stewart Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers and president of the WCHA, the dinner is supposed to be a stately affair. "President Clinton has been to our dinner every year," he says, "and we feel very honored that he wants to come and share an evening with us. We are at the White House every day ... this is our chance to invite the president to our place."

Not that presidents have always come willingly. In a June 2, 1971, memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon complained that, despite his attendance at the WHCA dinner, ''reporters were more bad-mannered and vicious than usual'' at a subsequent press conference. ''This bears out my theory," Nixon wrote, "that treating them with considerably more contempt is in the long run a more productive policy."

President Jimmy Carter, too, hated going, and ended up missing more of them than he attended. "There are about five or six dinners given in the first half of the year given by news organizations," says Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, "all of whom expect the president and the first lady to show up, provide free entertainment and sit back while they get dissed. I always thought it was one of the most incredibly presumptuous institutions in Washington society ... And of course, that was in the old days when people were polite and well-mannered and civilized."

Conflict of interest charges have also dogged the event. There are plenty of critics who find fault with official socializing between the ruling class and the supposedly impartial reporters who were to protect the republic by diligently covering them. Some uneasiness about reporters who walk within seduction-length of power is no doubt merited. Still, Washington is a company town, and it's an over-inflated outrage for anyone to object that reporters and government officials can be friends or, at least, friendly.

The trouble began in 1987, when Kelly invited Hall. Then in 1990, Marla Maples -- exclusively famous for being the babe Donald Trump dumped his wife for -- showed up at the dinner on the arm of Time reporter Jack McDonald. The evening's host, Dennis Miller, reminded the crowd that Diane Sawyer had asked Maples about an infamous New York Post headline that quoted her review that her romps with Trump were the ''Best Sex I've Ever Had.''

"I think she should ask Diane Sawyer if Mike Nichols was the best sex she ever had," Miller joked. "And then she should ask Sam Donaldson if he's ever had sex.''

But there is a sort of poetic justice in the infusion of these media-made stars to the big press blowout. McDonald merely brought Maples to dinner. Sawyer brought her into America's living rooms.

Eight year later, Insight's Rodriguez put that last sleazy straw on the camel's overburdened back by bringing Jones -- a woman whose only claim to fame was that she had accused the leader of the free world of whipping it out and asking her to "kiss it."

"He believes in the whole theory that any publicity is good publicity," says a former Insight employee. "He deserves some of the criticism" for the soiling of the dinner. "He was really happy with himself that he was getting all the attention."

Rodriguez seems to see the Times' hand-wringing as annoying more than anything else. "The gist of it was, I wasn't going to take some moral position on who was good enough to go and who was bad enough to go," he says. "Not to put Jones and the Supreme Court on the same playing field, but should we not have allowed any of the nine justices who ruled unanimously that the president could be sued? What about [Clinton attorney] Bob Bennett? It became a real slippery slope. How do you make these kinds of calls? It was a tough issue but then it dawned on me that it wasn't something I really had to grapple with -- she had as much right to be there as anybody else. And if she had enough stones to go then why not?"

Donaldson, newly reassigned to the White House beat for ABC News, didn't seem to have a problem with it that night, as he sidled up to Jones for a photo. Rodriguez points out that he wasn't her only suitor for that night -- Jones was asked to attend by five or six other news organizations.

Since he took office last year as WCHA president, Stewart Powell has tried to remind the members of the WCHA that the night is intended to honor the president. "We rely on the good judgment of our members to invite guests who share that goal," he says. "But if a news organization or a member of a news organization has a different agenda, there's really not much we can do."

Powell has also initiated a number of changes to help steer the ship back to the land of respectability. For one, he says, instead of a comedian, the supremely inoffensive Aretha Franklin will be this year's host. (Virtues king Bill Bennett was heard repeatedly mumbling "son of a bitch" after each of host Al Franken's GOP-targeted jokes in '96.)

Additionally, Powell has enlisted MSNBC's cleanly pressed, lightly starched Brian Williams to help the evening refocus on the awards phase of the dinner. As Powell wrote to Oreskes in February, "I am hopeful that the changes that we're undertaking will strike a balance at our dinner -- underscoring the traditional purposes of the event while retaining the sense of excitement that so many of our members look forward to each year."

Oreskes, who has nothing but praise for Powell's leadership of the WHCA, says he's eager to see what happens. "I don't have anything against having a dinner and getting together," he says. "I'm not a malcontent or an unsociable fella." He allows the possibility that the Times may grace the event with its presence next year.

Oreskes won't be the only one sitting this year's dinner out. Rodriguez, Jones' date from last year, is sidelined with a broken neck from a scuffle with a lobbyist. But even if Flynt develops a head cold and the event is attended by no one more controversial than Mr. Rogers, the dinner is guaranteed to have some awkward moments. How could it not after this past year?

Though the president will be the only one offered the microphone to deliver extensive remarks, the association will present the annual Edgar A. Poe Award to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff -- the man who introduced the world to Monica Lewinsky. In his recent book, "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," Isikoff wrote, "Presidents ought not be permitted to deceive the public [and] Clinton did so repeatedly and brazenly," and that he became "convinced Clinton was far more psychologically disturbed than the public ever imagined." Might be hard for the president to work up the energy for applause on that one, but whatever, welcome to Washington.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------