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Jewish World Review May 23, 2000 / 18 Iyar, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Press swoons
for a bunco artist -- ON APRIL 29, I attended -- for the first time -- the allegedly prestigious White House Correspondents' Association dinner. The stars were two stand-up comics: Jay Leno and the president of the United States. The audience at the Washington Hilton included about 2,000 renowned print and television journalists, as well as celebrities from Hollywood and network television. I am grateful to The Washington Times for the invitation, because the evening changed my view of many in the Washington press corps -- and not for the better.

In his May 3 Washington Times column, Tony Blankley wrote that "almost alone" among the guests, he was "appalled both by President Clinton's performance and by the positive response of the audience."

He was not alone. During several standing ovations for the president, I remained seated. And although many laughed at his jokes until there were tears in their eyes, I was disgusted, not amused. I have greatly enjoyed Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Moms Mabley and Lenny Bruce (who was a friend); but they did not memorize someone else's script. They improvised and they boldly and hilariously skewered the hypocrisies of the powerful -- in and out of politics. They did not -- as the president always does -- focus on the way one's ability to rise from adversity increases one's own glory.

Clinton's performance was written by Mark Katz of the Soundbite Institute. Katz also ghosts for Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not notable for her wit. Video clips assembled by Phil Rosenthal, the creator and producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond," were shown during the president's monologue. For some reason the president neglected to acknowledge his helpers. I wonder if they did this pro bono, as a patriotic service.

The president's stamp was on every line. The jokes that continually broke up the sophisticated diners were intended to cloak the ways he has dishonored his office by enabling him to be seen as "the poor soul" who is, after all, only human.

Now that he has survived, partly by making people laugh at his bumbling misadventures (his routine that night has been widely televised), he shows what good sports we all are. And the president -- after all the mortification he has endured from Ken Starr and other prudish, malicious "right-wing zealots" -- shows that he is the best sport of all.

As Tony Blankley astutely put it, "By gaining the laughter of the political and media elite in the room (and the American viewing audience), he implicates them as after-the-fact co-conspirators with him."

During the evening, Clinton made a joke about Travelgate. Amid the laughter, I wondered if Billy Dale, who ran the White House travel office, was watching C-Span. Clinton ruined the man's life by falsely accusing him of misuse of funds.

I guess writer Mark Katz couldn't come up with a joke about the president's tampering with witnesses involved in the impeachment proceedings. Nor could he find any humor in the way Clinton deliberately denied due process -- elemental fairness -- to another citizen, Paula Jones, by deliberately lying during a deposition in her case. White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis might have spun it if he had been asked to work on the script.

But the correspondents who orchestrated the event much preferred Jay Leno, who poked at some sore spots in what will be the Clinton legacy, but never really darkened the overall tribute to The Comeback Kid. And Leno practically genuflected in praise of the president's comic timing.

That night, I ran into a couple of journalists who also declined to join the ovations for the president. Particularly outraged was Matt Drudge, the "lonely pamphleteer" who is looked down upon by his more establishment colleagues.

Drudge railed at what has become of the press, which used to bask in its critical independence but now cheers a bunco artist. Drudge told me that Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder -- fresh from his role in orchestrating the commando raid that extracted Elian Gonzalez -- chided such criticism of the merry correspondents' dinner. "It's all in good humor," Holder told Drudge.

As the laughter of the audience rolled on, I thought of my mentors in journalism: George Seldes, I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton. I don't think they would have joined the standing ovations for this president. And I remembered my first editor, William Harrison, whom I worked for when I was 19 years old. He ran a weekly newspaper for black readers, The Boston Chronicle.

"There are three rules here," he told me. "Accuracy, clarity, and don't let the people you cover con you."

At last I know who the inveterate Washington insiders are. They're the press corps.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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05/08/00: The coverage of Reno's lawless raid
05/01/00: In Clinton and Castro's best interests
04/24/00: Elian's human rights
04/17/00: Crime's down, but arrests keep rising
04/10/00: Teacher brings Constitution to life
04/03/00: The Americans who keep disappearing
03/27/00: The censoring of feminist history
03/20/00: Should there be a chaplain in Congress?
03/13/00: Big labor, big China, spinning Gore
03/03/00: The ACLU violates its principles --- yet again!
02/28/00: Still two nations?
02/11/00: You bet we should disbar Bubba
01/31/00: Where was Jesse?
01/24/00: Is suing church for sexual harassment an entanglement?
01/18/00: Will Miranda make it?
01/11/00: ACLU: Guilty until presumed innocent?
01/03/00: Liberty lion should be Man of Century
12/28/99: Drug tests that tear families apart
12/20/99: Get ready for decisive ruling on school vouchers for religious schools
12/13/99: Guess who is taking the lead in anti-slavery movement? Hint: It ain't Rev. Jesse
12/06/99: When we refuse to buy the 'otherly-challenged' excuse
11/29/99: Expelling 'Huck Finn'
11/22/99: Pleading the First
11/16/99: Goal of diversity needs rethinking?
11/08/99: Prosecution in darkness
11/02/99: The accuracy that's owed to readers
10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
10/18/99: The blue wall of silence
10/11/99: Bill Bradley's speech tax
10/04/99: 'Technicalities' that keep us free
09/27/99: Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation
09/20/99: ACLU better clean up its act
09/13/99: A professor of infanticide at Princeton
09/07/99: The Big Apple's Rotten Policing
08/23/99: Lawyerly ethics
08/16/99: To Get a Supreme Court Seat
08/02/99: What are the poor people doing tonight?
07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA