They're Shocked, Shocked!
By Margaret Carlson
(TIME, April 1) -- The Washington press corps feigned surprise that radio host Don Imus offended the President, the First Lady, Speaker Newt Gingrich and others at the Radio & TV Correspondents' Dinner last Thursday night. There were some funny moments, and intermittent silences, as Imus, the evening's emcee, took jabs at the Speaker's gay half-sister, Clinton's alleged extramarital activities, Senator Bob Kerrey's artificial leg, and offered X-rated details of a TV journalist's marital difficulties. Imus went easier on people who visit his show (Tim Russert, Bob Dole, Cokie Roberts) than on those who don't, such as Bernard Shaw (an anchor desk away from going postal) and George Will ("the kind of guy who dresses up on weekends in clothes that make him feel pretty").
The press asked for what it got. Just like the White House Correspondents' Dinner later in the spring, this affair seeks out performers to act as surrogates to tweak, if not debase, people in power. But for the first time, the correspondents' association sent a formal letter of apology to the President. "What did the organization think they were getting when they invited Imus? I fault them," said Tom Brokaw. ABC's Jackie Judd, one of the dinner's organizers, said, "We wanted some discomfort, but not that much." After the show, White House press secretary Michael McCurry called C-SPAN to ask that it not re-air the event. In a press release C-SPAN countered that the public had a right to see "what all this fuss is about." ABC's Cokie Roberts, an Imus regular, said, "He always separates his raunchiness from the political part of his show. I thought he would have sense enough to do the same here. Now none of us can go on his show again."
Roberts was one of the few who would go on record; the others fear reprisals. "Imus can trash you for a solid week," a network correspondent said. Imus says he followed his only instructions, which were to make fun of everybody and tell no organ jokes. "Did they expect me to say one thing on the radio and then go to Washington and be a weasel? When the First Lady laughed at my opening, I thought I was home free." He didn't know that a few sex jokes later, NPR's Elizabeth Arnold whispered to Mrs. Clinton that she would join her if Hillary wanted to leave. The First Lady hung in: she's heard worse.
Virtue may be its own reward, but cold, hard cash never hurts. Moralcrat Bill Bennett wandered into a Las Vegas casino after giving one of his standard America-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket speeches, when bingo, the Book of Virtues author hit the jackpot. A sheepish Bennett wouldn't say how much he won ($60,000, says a friend) or how long he played, but did want to explain: "I'm against state expansion of gambling, state advertising encouraging people to gamble, and gambling as a way to make a living. But adults on their own time...," etc., etc. Proceeds went to charity.
Guess who's not coming to dinner--Senator Ted Kennedy, despite a full-court press by Ronald Kessler and his mother. She asked the Senator to come to a reception at the Ritz-Carlton to celebrate her son's new book when the two were on the same flight from Boston. Although the book details various stories about Joseph Kennedy's anti-Semitism and complicity in his daughter's reported lobotomy, in Washington that's no reason not to invite the subject's son. At least someone in Washington has the good sense not to go where he and his family will be held up to ridicule.
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