(From Mike Fritz, TODAY Researcher, Washington, D.C.)
Dressed in my only suit and a borrowed black tie, I strolled casually into a world of power, money and influence. A world I knew nothing of.
The annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, held last Wednesday at the Washington Hilton, attracted a wide-range of upper echelon government officials and the men and women who make a living covering them.
A perk of being a researcher for the Today Show in Washington D.C. is that, on rare occasions, you wine and dine with the big wigs. And last week the media spent an evening with the biggest wig of them all, President George W. Bush.
Like Nick Carraway trying to coolly navigate one of Jay Gatsby’s terrace cocktail parties, I started to a make a note of the people in the room. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly chatted to a much shorter man in the corner, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff strolled by and acknowledged Senator Lindsay Graham, and MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson slipped through the crowd, as his dancing hair fluttered in the evening’s gentle winds.
Turning around, I said to my colleague and fellow researcher Sarah Demarest, “This is crazy, what are we doing here?” Shaking her head, she smiled a disbelieving smile and headed for the bar. On her heels I followed close behind, feeling like a three-legged wildebeest that had just stumbled haplessly upon a pack of deranged hyenas. “They’ll eat me alive,” I thought to myself.
Although I am 24 and can grow facial hair faster than a yeti, the man behind the bar carded me. Nervously reaching for my wallet, I bumped into a gentleman (who was probably important, in his own mind) standing in line behind me. I apologized and took my scotch-and-not-enough-water over to the small contingent of people I felt comfortable with.
Only moments later, though, a mustachioed man told me to finish my drink and find our seats for dinner. “This is a full cocktail,” I told him. “Do your best, sir,” he responded. Following his orders I did my best and headed for security. This occasion, no doubt, marked the first time armed-men and two sets of metal detectors needed appeasing before I could eat.
NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, preceded me through the black security device. Something struck as me as odd when I saw her, dressed in elegant evening wear, being frisked by a guy who looked like the villain from Terminator 2.
After I endured the full security flogging myself, I took the ticket out of my breast pocket and gave it to the woman blocking the entrance. Visions of passing the butter to ambassadors, network correspondents, and cabinet-level secretaries danced in my head. “Table 189 is in the back, kind of behind that big giant screen,” the woman told me.
As I headed for my seat, I looked lustfully across the room at the head table: The table where the president and distinguished guests would soon be enjoying their prime rib. Wondering if I needed a new prescription for my contacts, I struggled to grasp exactly how far Table 189 was from the head table. It was barely in the same room. And the woman at the door was correct; Table 189 sat directly behind a hulking television screen, a screen that did an excellent job of blocking any view one could ascertain from our remote location.
I took a seat and introduced myself to the rest of the table, still excited about whom I might be sitting next to. Five people, already seated, said they were part of NBC’s Sunday morning show Meet the Press. “Oh neat,” I said. “What do you guys do for Tim [Russert]?” And in a chorus-like response, they said, “We’re interns.”
My grand illusions of hearing about the war-zone from CBS’ Lara Logan and sharing a laugh with White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino came crashing down. Table 189 was full of plain Jane’s and modest Matt’s, perfect guests when there’s an abundance of wine.
Peering around the Wal-Mart sized screen, I heard President Bush’s familiar voice. “Well, where should I start? A year ago, my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my Vice President had shot someone.” The president was self-effacing and funny, but the show was stolen by one of his top aides. Karl Rove’s conversation into hip-hop mogul MC Rove is certain to live a full life and then some on YouTube. WATCH VIDEO
It was a night none of us at Table 189 will soon forget. The food, the comedy, and the atmosphere were of classic Washington opulence. Opulence we might not have been versed in, but as they say, every Cinderella gets a chance to try on her gown.