Prom Night at the Hinckley Hilton

By Michael Dolan

In many ways, journalism recapitulates high school: excruciating assemblies in large bad-smelling rooms, vicious overseers, constant interaction with individuals and groups you despise, wisecracking co-conspirators, agonizing and lengthy periods of boredom punctuated by moments of galvanic terror, crappy lunches, and--central to either experience--the habitual pulling of all-nighters to finish assignments on subjects about which you know little and could care less.

True, there are differences. In exchange for enduring their lot journalists get paid, sometimes handsomely. On the other hand, most people eventually leave high school and begin the struggle to lead a productive life.

Each spring, capital scribblers get a reminder of their sullen craft's adolescent roots. Coincident to the scores of teen proms convening in ballrooms around town, the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner fills the main hall at the Washington Hilton with the president and 2,500 would-be pals. When the kids from Media High descend on the Hinckley Hilton, the metaphor knits itself.

This rite of inside-the-Beltway passage suggests what might occur each spring if--like the nation's flotilla of J-schools isn't curse enough--Washington sported a magnet secondary academy designed to propel class after class of juvenile Nosy Parkers into the world, and if, year after year, every graduate kept buying a prom ticket and showing up, closing in on senescence while trying to keep up with the younger set.

What the scene with the dinner is is that the association, whose sole charter since its founding in 1914 has been to hold this potlatch, sends out a call for reservations. Comes the appointed evening in April or May, and ticket buyers and guests show up to wander from preliminary reception to preliminary reception, after which they gather in the hotel's monster basement hall, which resembles the digestive tract of something from Jules Verne's sketch pads, schmooze (a chore made simpler by distribution of a handbook that lists those in attendance cross-referenced by alphabet, affiliation, and table number), eat dinner, schmooze some more, endure the presentation of awards for stuff like being the first wire service guy to let a candid world know that a polyp has been removed from the president's butt, listen to what are supposed to be witty remarks from the leader of the U.S., followed by what usually are funny remarks from a professional comedian (the talent of late has included Dick Cavett, Jay Leno, Yakov Smirnoff, and Sinbad; this year's entertainer was Paula Poundstone), then go howling down the corridors to plant their front hooves in the troughs at various party suites until the bug juice runs out. The next morning they swear they didn't do anything, and where is that bowl of Excedrin soup, honey?

By tradition, the do took place on a Saturday night in April, and there were some roaring good nights had by nearly all, until the mid-'80s, when the association switched to Thursday evenings. This threw off everyone's riddim and sharply cut into the fun variable--who ever heard of holding the prom on a school night? A couple of years later, it was back to Date Night No. 2, but by then the New Puritanism had descended, and the whooping never returned to previous levels. Last year, there were hopeful signs when soon-to-be-late newspaper czar Robert Maxwell threw a nightcapper in his upstairs suite, but the uninvited horde had scarcely started biting the tops off the marzipan models of the Capitol when Big Bob flicked the lights, chasing everyone out so he could catch some Z's. Maybe it wasn't the Mossad that waxed Max, but an irate crasher with a long memory.

There is one way in which the correspondents' dinner diverges from the teen-prom profile, and that is in the general tone of amiability. Maybe it's the diminution of hormonal energy brought on by age, maybe it's all those SS guys carrying heavy metal under their shawl collars, but it probably has to do with the odd alchemy of beat reporting. Most of the people at the dinner do work a beat, slogging back to the same well week in and week out, and if you think you miss your water when your well runs dry, try pissing off the only source on a subject you have to report on. Call it a brown-nosing daisy chain or call it reality winning out over The Front Page, but don't call it confrontational, except in the immediate vicinity of the seafood kabobs, where things can get ugly.

The tone of the specific evening derives from the state of the nation in general, and of the sitting president in particular. During Jimmy Carter's Oval Office stay, he distinguished himself with one brilliantly self-mocking monologue that made up for another year's peevish stand-in performance by Jody Powell, who showed more than an inch of meanspirited cracker hambone in his gimlet-eyed delivery.

Ronald Reagan's masterful timing and material from a crack cadre of speechwriters usually scored well, even the spring that the Great Communicator had to phone in his jokes owing to being laid up by the small-bore unpleasantness that had occurred just outside the month before. George Bush is a presidential presence of a different sort. Even when relaxed, he seems to be always on edge, a Bush imitator straining for effect. When, a few dinners ago, the featured comedian was a Bush impressionist, it was tough to tell which twin had the Toni.

Where Reagan could slough off whatever shitstorm might rise up to engulf his presidency, Bush bobs on the temporal tide. At last year's dinner, he was the Caesar of Southwestern Asia, pumped up on the supposed stomping of Saddam Hussein and able to summon standing ovations for his janizaries and fellow guests Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell. This year, the times ensnared Bush, who came to the party with the King jury verdict and the LA riots perched on either shoulder like a matched pair of pet Gila monsters.

But those were George's problems; hell, he was the guy who ran on Willie Horton's coattails, wasn't he? The rest of us came to play, which we did, once we got through the business of preparing for the big night and enduring a fragment of homily on justice in America.

As with any prom, there are resounding choruses of gripe on the theme of having to attend--oh, it is just so gross and icky having to be head cheerleader and student body president and stand up there with everyone looking at me, darn it!--and a handful of stoics actually do eschew the festivities even if they don't have to work the rim in some lonely news bureau. But of the several thousand ink-stained wretches heard to harp about tuxedo rental fees and the cost of a new dress and shoes and the quality of hotel chateaubriand and having to miss Bruce Springsteen or whoever else is on Saturday Night Live, a surprisingly big percentage manages to gussy itself up and parade over to Florida and Connecticut for the show.

The dinner is black-tie formal. On the male side this translates into a surge in rental revenues for tailor shops, and an alarming sight--clunky slab-soled onyx FBI wingtips protruding from saggy pant legs draped on guys who may be giants under deadline but who don't know the one truth about tux rentals: If you get a penguin suit that's a size too small, it looks a hell of a lot better, and if you spring for the patent-leather shoes, you slash your dweeb factor. And learn how to tie a bow tie, for Chrissakes; that would put you one up on about 45 percent of the guys in attendance.

Among distaff newsies, the night represents an opportunity to glitz it up big-time. Newcomers to the trade usually are recognizable not only by their dewy complexions, but by getups that suggest Bridesmaid Revisited. Perhaps because the recession has clamped down on entry-level jobs and new hires, the 1992 dinner's female contingent had a higher style profile than usual, with a strong showing in the sequins department and enough Sharon Stone glimmer minis encasing aerobicized bods to make things more interesting than usual.

No prom is complete without date angst, and the White House Prom is no exception. In high school, the overarching idea is to get laid. At the correspondents' dinner, the image pertains, but the reality is a mite less physical. For one thing, though a night of a few thousand semistars might seem to be a sweet perquisite to bestow on a spouse or significant other, such is not usually the case--unless one's spouse or SI is as well-connected as oneself. Just so with guests; it usually is made clear that only the invitee is invited, but on more than one occasion an extra chair has to be commandeered because someone didn't get the message and shows up with chagrined mate in tow.

Some participants invite news sources, on the theory that a night with the prez and the rest of the city's media stars will have the same effect, inside-informationwise, that a bumper of Colt 45 has, datewise. Although the analogy holds, like a bottle of malt liquor the dinner's effect is fleeting and not conducive to the establishment of long-term intimacy.

And as in high school, like flocks to like. Recalling the team captain squiring the head pompon-waver, aces from more prestigious news outlets are the likeliest to equerry first-order guests. Further down the food chain, we have to emulate the vice presidents of the library guild and audiovisual club, scrabbling for such lesser lights as might brighten our dance cards. In the months preceding the event, phone conversations around town take on Bye Bye Birdie-like complexity, as successful inviters strive to sound casual about their coups. It is considered bad form to play Queen's "We Will Rock You" as background music while explaining how it was just dumb luck that you managed to persuade the under-assistant West Coast acting director for interagency affairs to join you and your colleagues for the evening.

The least pretentious shops simply plunk down $1,000 per 10-seat table and invite the crew and selected buds for a night of yuks and roll-throwing. Like the groups of real kids who have apprehended the wisdom of attending their proms in undifferentiated packs rather than stiffly arrayed pairs, these tables have a markedly higher merriment quotient than the stiffs over yonder so intent on impressing one another.

The middle ground is inviting sources whose company you enjoy, which brings up another metaphor. The rampant coziness between reporters and sources exhibited at events like the correspondents' dinner reveals the true relationship between the Washington press corps and the Washington establishment, which is about as genuinely adversarial as professional wrestling.

Sometimes, in a display of warped teen spirit, a news organization gets its cummerbund knotted and boycotts the prom, as happened to the Washington bureau of McGraw-Hill a few years ago when the suits in Gotham crunched the numbers and deprived the Business Week contingent and lesser acolytes of the chance to strut. (This year M-H must have sold off a subsidiary, pink-slipped a bunch of senior staffers, or otherwise cadged the price of admission; a few worthies from the Vermont Avenue office were on hand.)

For years, the crowd consisted mainly of faces known only to those who covered them, but that has changed with the infusion of massive amounts of celebriticity. In the mid-'80s, newsrooms with a self-promotional bent began pitching correspondents' dinner invites at folks with no association to the news except a desire to be in it. This has served to dot the proceedings with flashes of glamour, such as the year Robert Redford showed, causing Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen no end of smug embarrassment (at the time he and Redford were both short guys with blond hair--they're both still short, but only Redford is blond) and nobody was asking Redford if he was Cohen.

Another key concept is that of the Designated Bimbo, which has many male guests adjusting their Jockey shorts and craning their necks, as occurred the year Donna Rice wound up being gawked at and gaped upon as if she were a 3-D scratch 'n' sniff foldout. This year, Washington Times Managing Editor Wes Pruden widened the bimbo access rule from bimbos-in-the-news to any-old-bimbo, ordering his lackeys to bring him Ms. Page 14 of the Victoria's Secret catalog. The Prudeman's four-color friend didn't make it, but the Times did snag talk-show sex goddess Ruth Westheimer, proving that the only really erogenous zone is between the ears.

In the great prom tradition, the evening begins with pre-party parties, progresses to the main party, and closes with post-party (and sometimes post-post-party) partying. Some dinnergoers use the front door of the Hilton, but the action really begins on the lower level. Scant feet from where Ronald Reagan almost bought his final farm, clots of tourists stand and stare at the spit and polish passing them by. Inside, knots of overdressed people chat and scan, trolling the room for guests, professional acquaintances ("Yeah, I'm here, too, and don't you forget it"), and stars. As each gaggle forms up, its members drift toward the party suites for more yack, more reckless eyeballing, and more star-spotting.

As society columnist Robert Frost might have noted, an open-bar party is where, when you have to show up, they have to let you in. That was the case at the Newsweek fete, where movie-maker Oliver Stone, whose JFK was shot up badly by the magazine, stalked the room hunched and beady-eyed, like Jack Ruby making his way into the basement of the Dallas jail. Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley slid through, he gleaming like a candidate among the brother- and sisterhood of the print medium, she nervous among people who can spot a byline at 50 paces but don't get up to watch television at the crack of dawn and have to blink to recognize a talking head who didn't play behind David Byrne.

In the hallway, as Marine Band musicians and Secret Service wireskulls threaded past, unfamous guests tallied their spottings, which came in two varieties: the famous and the notorious, fame being a quality of instant recognizability and notoriety being a circumstance in which the face may not ring a chime but the reputation does. In between are the visages that hang in the eye for a moment after their owners pass by, causing the brow to furrow and the memory to work overtime but fruitlessly.

In the former category: Her Serene Postness, Katharine Graham; C. Everett Koop looking like a Mennonite maitre d'; Chuck Robb and his Kiwi-black hair (former rubadubdubdown companion Tai Collins was supposed to be there as a guest of USA Today, but didn't show); CNN face Wolf Blitzer looking as inscrutable as Zhou En Lai; ex-White House press chief James Brady hanging tough (Could you come back every year and roll your wheelchair past a place where you left a chunk of your brain?); legal eagle Alan Dershowitz and, a few minutes later, Hollywood Doppelganger Ron Silver (where were Claus and Jeremy?); John McLaughlin looking like a bull walrus wearing grandma's glasses; Mister Hand-on-the-Candle himself, G. Gordon Liddy, who photographs big but actually is on the petite size, sort of an AMT 1/25 scale goon; Georgette Mosbacher, the Jerry Hall of the GOP, clad in a taut, artfully pressed rose shmatte that must've set her and the little mister back a few G's.

Among the latter group were conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke, wearing the rictal smirk of the aging enfant terrible, and Economist Bureau Chief Michael Elliott, clad in what seemed to be the evening's sole white tuxedo, replete with floral cummerbund and tie, causing him to look for all the world like Paul McCartney in Magical Mystery Tour.

Usually the entire ring of party suites outside the main ballroom is given over to media organizations' microsoirees, but times must be hard--not only were there fewer parties, one of them was a low-key reception for visiting city planners, who kept wandering out in their Reeboks and corduroys to add a leavening, humane texture to the harlequin herd milling about.

Then, putting matters in proper theatrical perspective, the hall lights flashed several times, and the cattle slowly converged on the entryway. Like heifers backed up on a feed lot, the lines slowed as each person passed through a metal detector. There were three: two for the hoi polloi, one for major guys and gals. Out came the cigarette lighters and keys, the Swiss army knives and cigar tubes, the miniaturized moronomatic cameras. Before she could get into the banquet room, USA Today fashion writer Elizabeth Snead, togged out in black lace beneath a noir cowhide biker jacket, had to suffer the indignity of demonstrating nearly every one of her many zippers under the blinkless gaze of several Executive Protective Service uniforms.

Once everyone got situated, the high-school model reared its ugly head for real. Instead of passing through a receiving line, we had to stand up and sit down more times than an altar boy at high Mass, as departing Association President and CNN reporter Charles Bierbauer first couldn't find the script, stalled for time like an anchorman with a lapful of dead air, and started an interminable speech that began with references to Desert Storm (could it have taken place only a year ago?). Bierbauer paused for a moment of silent prayer on behalf of solutions to domestic strife, then dove into a bewildering recitation of how the White House Correspondents' Association decided to stop appointing its officers and start electing them.

Yo, Chuck--like, who cares?

Bierbauer might as well have been trying to talk about last year's Pulitzer over a newsroom in the final minutes before deadline. The chatter level rose to ominous proportions before saviors around the hall began whacking their glasses with pieces of silverware, bringing the restless mob to a momentary quiescence.

After Bierbauer finally wrestled his speech to the ground, he introduced Bush, who tried a feeble joke or two and then made the obligatory reference to the horror in Los Angeles, claiming to find a pervasive sense of determination and hope amid the ruins.

Bush, or any president, deserves credit for breaking steak in the same room with such a gang of self-important jabberwocks. He must feel like the principal at the prom--yet another year slipping by, world peace within our grasp but always on the verge of slipping away, gosh, the gym needs a paint job, the deficit is strangling the economy, those creepy kids in their Godawful rented suits. Yet there he was, gamely trying not to pay too much attention to the poisonous lizards on his shoulders. Apologizing for bumming everybody out by daring to trade as briefly as he did in grim reality, Bush closed by saying, "Paula Poundstone and I are both very funny people. She's funny on purpose."

Poundstone's routine had its moments, especially when she was playing the hapless chief executive as a straight man, but her low-key dissociative style wasn't enough to bring the crowd up from the slough of despond into which Bierbauer and Bush had cast it.

And even if Poundstone had left 'em in the aisles, it wouldn't have mattered; incoming Correspondents' Association President Karen Hosler of the Baltimore Sun had her controls set for the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Hosler opened by barking out a demand for an extra crapper in the White House press women's-room, revived the dronathon discussion of the organization's picayune protocol, introduced her mom, and finally mercifully unbelievably shut up--but not before establishing beyond a doubt that an unruly crowd is no respecter of genders. By the time she let Bierbauer back to say goodnight and remind everybody else to phone home for Mother's Day, looting had started to break out at the back of the hall.

Then it was off to the races--for the petit fours at the Reuters suite, for the electric coffee being brewed by the Washington Times, for the garden-variety booze and snorks laid on by the Baltimore Sun. The narrow, curving hallway leading to the Caucus Room corridor was elbow-to-elbow-to-elbow, and the devil take the hindmost. Everyone was staring forward with that I-see-you-I-don't-see-you stare peculiar to sentries and bus drivers.

The weather had a claustrophobifying effect. Party suites along the outer edge of the Caucus wing open onto a terrace that adjoins the Hilton's outdoor pool, and in warmer springs there are as many people outside on prom night as in. But though the suite doors were flung open, only the tough-minded or thoroughly lubricated were willing to endure the fiftysomething wet air on the terrace. Driven to the interior by the chill, the partygoers worked the corridors like Larry Bird in heavy traffic, juking shoulders and swapping head fakes and doing whatever was necessary to get just one more Cointreau and coffee.

In the crush, a perverse democracy arose. No matter how major one might be, there is no parting the waters when the waters consist of impatient newsies. It was not enough to be big time; you had to be big, and the bigger you were, the likelier you were to get a drink.

Unless you used psychology, as Dr. Ruth did. The teeny talkmistress grabbed herself a chair in the Times suite and chatted with Deputy Managing Editor Josette Shiner, oblivious to the jabbering and slavering and posturing and sucking up and looking down that swirled around her.

Sometime during the evening of every prom there is an unmagical moment when you realize that there will be no transformation, no epiphany. You will drive home and go to sleep and get up in the morning and taste the stale flavor of the preceding evening and remember how you acquired it. This year the stale flavor was inching up around my molars even before I made it to the street.

In the hall, the crush wasn't what it had been earlier, and the blast-furnace roar of idle talk was down to a bearable rumble. Downstairs by the ballroom entrance, the metal detectors were packed up and gone, and a guy was steering a Ride n Vac over the carpet. A man and woman were watching over a stack of Anvil cases at the elevators. Up a floor, by the lower entrance to the Hilton, there were a few stretch limos waiting to pick up poobahs, some cabs lurking in the taxi stand, and a hardy band of star-spotters perched about where John Hinckley once stood.

The air felt as if it would never warm up or dry out. Downstream on the sidewalk, a guy was begging for spare change, no change, OK God bless, and across the deserted street, beneath a fluorescent light in the parking garage, a young woman in a spangled dress was sitting on the bench by the attendant's cubicle. A Volvo sedan pulled up. The driver shoved the door open without leaving his seat. His passenger stood and wobbled toward the car, dress shaking in the lights as her high heels clacked uncertainly on the concrete.

Thanks to Michael Dolan for permission to republish this piece.

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