At last year's White House Correspondents Association dinner -- Washington's moderately glitzy answer to the Oscars, where a bizarre mix of Hollywood celebrities, politicians, authors and workaday media types gather to gawk at one another -- President Clinton scanned the packed banquet room of the Hilton hotel and noted an obvious absence. "I just want to know one thing," he quipped from the podium. "How come there's no table for Salon Magazine?"
Well, the prez might have observed that Salon was absent again last Saturday night -- though he said nothing of it as he stood before a crowd that included his recently released friend Susan McDougal, Hustler publisher and unfaithful-Republicans nemesis Larry Flynt, George editor John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, media-unfriendly actor Sean Penn, Roma "Touched by an Angel" Downey and -- much to the delight of squealing fans -- Camryn Manheim of "The Practice." But while we didn't have a table at the notoriously non-gourmet dinner, I did manage to slip into the far more entertaining swill-filled, swell-filled pre-dinner cocktail parties.
That's right. I crashed. But I did it for you -- though I must say you all could just as well have done it yourselves. It was incredibly easy. All you need is a date with a tux (it helps if he's tall, as mine was), a nice-lookin' dress (I've worn the same one two years in a row and may wear it again next year -- one advantage to being more of a gawker than a gawkee, I suppose) and some serious cojones (I, needless to say, had to borrow a pair for the occasion, and they kept shifting around rather uncomfortably underneath my hose -- how do you men do it?). Here's how the more audacious than auspicious evening unfolded:
Side-stepping a spirited if scraggly band of picketers outside the unlovely Washington Hilton and signs for a simultaneous event -- a snap-of-the-latex-glove-happy gathering of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons! -- we expeditiously made our way to the cocktail parties on the hotel's lower level. Reuters was packed, but with no notables that we could see, just a lot of journalist types standing around in dim light getting hammered on the free booze.
Someone was checking invitations at the Time/People/CNN/Fortune gathering, but only at one door. We went straight to the other entrance, where we were greeted warmly by a man who offered us a glass of wine. "Take one," my date, who suddenly revealed himself to be a practiced party-crasher, advised. "You can get another drink later, but you want to be holding a glass of something as quickly as possible. Once you have a drink in your hand, you belong."
We surveyed the sparsely populated room in search of celebrity snaz -- wasn't Jennifer Lopez supposed to butt in here somewhere? -- but, seeing none, moved on. Drinks in hand, we could go anywhere, but we found Newsweek's party, just next door, even lamer than the Time Warner affair. Bypassing the Financial Times do (I mean, really, who could one expect to see there, Alan Greenspan? Last year, even he was at Vanity Fair's party!), we waltzed past a table boasting stacks of the current Calista Flockhart issue of George (who's going to lug that around all night, lightweight as Calista may be?) and into the party of the magazine that's made its name combining Hollywood and politics. There we encountered a better class of food and live music, but not yet a better class of people, or at least not Flynt or going-going-gonzo Hunter S. Thompson, who would reportedly be attending.
Later, I hear, Flynt, at least, did show at George, as did McDougal, but we opted to abandon the basement for the series of parties that gave way onto linked terraces. On our way up, we passed Portia de Rossi, who plays Nelle Porter on "Ally McBeal," on her way, presumably, to pick up a copy of the George with her co-star on the cover. She looked so self-satisfied in a shimmering silver sheath, her blond hair teased into something resembling dreadlocks and the members of her entourage fussily making their way behind her, that the odd thought crossed my mind that she might be crashing, too.
Walking out into the gorgeous spring evening, we immediately bumped into Barbara Walters, looking Vaseline-smeared-camera-lens-ready in pale pink and surrounded by male admirers, none of whom, miraculously, were crying. The place started filling up. We got pushed into a corner where Val Kilmer, scraggly haired and sporting funky specs, was deep in conversation with Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne. Computer cultural guru Esther Dyson passed by, shaking hands, smiling weakly. We fought our way out of the crowd ("Use your shoulders," my date coached) and onto the grassy ledge, just a few feet above the pleasure-seekers on the concrete terrace. There were Sam Donaldson and Peter Jennings flanked by fans; Ron Silver chatting up Gen. Colin Powell; Lucianne Goldberg on the periphery, biting hungrily into an appetizer; and 7-foot-7 NBA giant Georghe Muresan, at eye-level viewed from our perch.
I glanced up and noticed a hotel guest seated on his second-floor terrace, reading a newspaper, apparently oblivious to the hubbub a few feet below. I suddenly experienced some kind of bad acid flashback (hold my hand, Hunter S.) to last year's WHCA dinner, where such imperviousness would have been nearly impossible. Standing at almost the same spot, I had been transfixed by Paula Jones and her handlers (invited by wily conservative Insight magazine, but crashing the New Republic's do) as they smiled through flash after flash and greeted the bold many who sought them out. I stared, immobilized, for the better part of an hour, taking in the odd details: the bright-green gob of gum Paula handed to Susan Carpenter-McMillan, the rhinestone bag with the cat face on it she carried, the glint of her blue dress and matching eye-shadow, the way everyone shrank from her and gaped at her at the same time (except of course the photographers, who lined up for their shots).
This year, however, there was no such feverishly exciting focal point. And I felt its lack. The New York Times boycott -- for the sake of journalistic integrity -- seems like overkill, so much less overt was the media-celebrity-political rubbernecking this year than last. Taking a line from Clinton's speech at the 1998 affair, one might want to advise the Times editors, "Don't take yourselves so seriously." And one wonders why battle lines between the press and politicians have to be drawn so sharply as to preclude having a drink and a laugh together once a year. That seems as inhuman and artificial as the lacquered hairstyles of several of last year's more frightening dinner guests.
As the evening wrapped up, we chatted with several of our fellow low-profile party-goers (including a British journalist making a documentary about the convergence of Hollywood and Washington), tipped the very grateful bartenders (we appeared to be the only ones who did; fame and fortune, apparently, do not ensure generosity) and then, after the dinner gong sounded, made our way to the exit. In a strange twist of fate, however, the parties were more difficult to get out of than to get into. Several entrances were rendered off-limits in preparation for the arrival of the president and first lady, who were coming late to avoid a shared moment with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff as he claimed an award for airing Monica Lewinsky's dirty dry-cleaning.
Of course, we did finally escape and opted not to attempt to con our way into the exclusive Vanity Fair post-dinner party, where the star-gazing continued with a vengeance. After all, I had to return my party-crashing cojones to their rightful owner. (Thanks, Paula.) Maybe next year.