White House Correspondents Dinner: D.C. Dinosaur or Disaster?

God help me. I know this is going to make me persona non grata with the Washington media establishment, but my conscience compels me to say this: The White House Correspondents Association's annual dinner, which I just attended, should go the way of the Linotype, the teletype and the typewriter.

If ever there was anything that proves to the rest of the world that the Washington press corps is out of touch, out of synch and out to lunch, it is this awful Spring lemming-like migration of Washington journalists, politicians, lawmakers -- although to their credit they were few and far between -- lobbyists, political junkies and celebrity seekers to the Hinkley Hilton as the press kow-tows to the powers that be.

Some 2,700 people, and I'm ashamed to admit I was one of them, turned out in their formal finest, crowded into the Washington hotel where President Reagan was nearly killed by someone trying to impress a movie actress. Fortunately, there was no similar attempt this time, but then it was hardly necessary as this crowd was as ready to drink the Kool-Aid dished out by the Bush administration as were Jim Jones' demented acolytes.

Indeed, even as we were making nice with President Bush, the next morning's newspapers were reporting that his administration is going after reporters with a vengeance in order to plug leaks and threatening them with criminal proscecution.

Actually, President Bush was one of the few people who preserved a measure of dignity during this dreadful evening of press preening in which some of Washington's most powerful journalists prostrated themselves before the people they are supposed to be keeping a critical eye on.

Persuaded perhaps by his Fox News friend and newly-appointed press secretary Tony Snow, Bush teamed up with a talented impersonator to poke fun at himself and argue that he's not the arrogant, know-it-all Decider-in-Chief who listens only to God and nobody else. His line about surviving the recent White House shakeup ranked right up there with Nancy Reagan's boffo Gridiron Dinner skit as Second Hand Rose that defused criticism of her as an empty-headed clothes horse.

But the self-congratulatory tone of the dinner, with its chintzy scholarship awards to a trio of local high school and college students along with three of its own members -- did anybody think of honoring the legendary Art Buchwald as he lays dying in a nearby hospice? -- was grating, to say the least.

But who cares about such things when you can rub shoulders with gorgeous Geoge Clooney, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger, raunchy rap star Ludacris or a half-dozen lesser lights of the TV sit-coms? The real story here was which celebrity you could lure to your table to prove your importance in the entertainment -- er, news -- business. The Washington Post, which used to specialize in bringing down lying presidents, had at its table that old fraud Henry Kissinger, who still writes interminably long, turgid essays for the Post's op-ed page.

But at least the Los Angeles Times invited former Dodgers Manager Tommy LaSorda, who was happy to offer his take on Barry Bonds' steroid-infused assault on Babe Ruth's homerun record by declaring, "That son-of-a-bitch is a disgrace to baseball."

I've been to most of these dinners in the 40 years since I came to Washington as a correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press, and in the 11 years since I helped start The Hill, a nonpartisan newspaper covering Congress. This year, the dinner's planners saw fit to seat me in a Siberian section that offered a view of the head table only through a TV screen that showed the captions in reverse.

Worse yet, I was seated next to someone who introduced himself as a "presenter" for the BBC from Oxford, who said he once attened Georgetown University and worked as an intern for one of my heroes, the late Democratic Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois. But he was one of the most cynical people I've ever encountered who refused to stand for President Bush.

My suspicion that the real reason for this dinner is the big bucks it brings in for the Whiite House Correspondents Association was confirmed when I asked another of my table mates what he does for a living. "I'm an entertainer," he said.

"What kind of an entertainer?," I asked.

"A hypnotist and mind-reader from New Orleans," he replied.

I wonder if he could read my mind and know that I am about to turn in my card as a member of the White House Correspondents Association?

Oh yes, as I've been reminded by my former colleague on Vice President Mondale's staff, Marty Kaplan, and by Suzanne, I should have mentioned Colbert's smackdown of Bush. They're right; Bush's body language made he clear he would rather have been anywhere, even Fallujah, rather than listening to Colbert's devastating put-down of the president. But I thought he should have done it with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Sorry for the omission.