ABC News’ Charles Gibson, the night’s master of ceremonies, called them 1,300 “communist apologists, red-baiters and sons of bitches,” but with the Marine Band, a color guard and an opening toast to an absent President, the multitude of radio and TV reporters might well have passed for Sinclair Lewis’ Chamber of Commerce crowd.
Except for ABC’s White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. He bounded to the stage to do a hoofer’s number and sing a quick chorus (“immense expense is mainly in defense” to the tune of “The Rain in Spain” from “My Fair Lady”). That was a bit more like open-mike night at a Hollywood comedy club.
For readers who keep a “Social Notes From All Over” file, the occasion Thursday night at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington was the 42nd annual dinner of the Radio-Television Correspondents Assn., an organization of otherwise serious broadcast journalists who cover Washington for the TV networks and local stations around the country. The dinner is the newspeople’s once-a-year blowout when the adversaries put away their microphones and notebooks for a four-hour lovefest with the other side.
Retiring House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (D-Mass.) was the most loved guest of the night, walking out with gifts from the association--a Boston Red Sox cap and jacket (presumably to ease the transition from the benches of the Capitol to the bleachers of Fenway Park).
O’Neill got a standing ovation and a few laughs when he offered that “this is my 34th year in Washington, and I have never been to your affair before.”
Other notables among the list of honored guests were a bevy of cabinet secretaries, representatives and senators, including California’s senior Democrat Alan Cranston, along with wheelchair-bound presidential Press Secretary James S. Brady (another standing ovation) and official White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
Speakes didn’t get an ovation and neither did William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who the day before made a rare speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (meeting elsewhere in town) and was sitting at the table with ABC News brass Thursday night. In addition to Donaldson, there were Washington bureau chief George Watson and senior correspondent John Scali.
The double irony of the director’s presence and choice of table wasn’t lost. Just a year ago, Casey was locked in a bitter feud with ABC over its news coverage; these days, through his considerable stock holdings in a formerly little-known firm called Capital Cities Communications Inc., he’s an owner of the network.
Other new owners of the network weren’t on hand, which gave association president Charles Gibson a chance to tweak the hand that signs his checks. Noting Capital Cities/ABC chairman Thomas Murphy’s well-known reluctance to spend a dollar when a dime will do, Gibson said that Murphy couldn’t be there that night because the Greyhound buses weren’t running on schedule.
Some New York network executives did manage the trip, however. NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman was shaking a few hands, as was Gene Jankowsky, president of the CBS Broadcast Group.
The night’s entertainment was provided by a satirical song-and-dance group of young Capitol Hill staffers who call themselves the Capitol Steps. Numbers included sendups of the overtly covert war in Nicaragua (“Contra Boy” to the tune of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”), New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (to “Maria” from “West Side Story”) and the show-stopping “We Arm the World” (you get the idea). The Capitol Steps, too, received a standing ovation.