Just because some in the Washington press corps refer to it as “Junior Prom” doesn’t mean the Radio & Television Correspondents Association Dinner hasn’t had its share of memorable moments.
In 2008, even its entertainer/host Mo Rocca dissed the RTCA dinner, calling it the Nicky (Hilton) to the White House Correspondent Dinner’s Paris. And indeed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (aka “Senior Prom”) in recent years has bigger celebrities (the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Pamela Anderson, Ben Affleck and Mariska Hargitay), more of them and more-buzzed about pre- and post-parties. Check out some of the pics from last year here.
The RTCA dinner is now in its 65th year. It’s Hollywood quotient in the last decade was mostly limited to activist actors Ron Silver and Al Franken and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, although Jon Voight and Fran Drescher also put in appearances. But it has a recent history of making headlines from the stage; highlights (lowlights?) include entertainer Don Imus’ raunchy jokes about President Bill Clinton’s personal life in 1996, a major PR gaffe by President George W. Bush in 2004, and, in 2007, a bizarre rappin’ “MC [Karl] Rove.” And unlike the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner, the RTCA’s, which in recent years has been held at the Washington Hilton, is open to TV cameras.
Once upon a time, the tables were switched: Radio and television correspondents worked for richer news organizations and were better paid than their print colleagues and many were glamorous stars in their own right, giving their dinner the higher profile of the two. In 1987, however, the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Kelly started inviting the likes of Fawn Hall and Donna Rice to the White House Correspondents’ dinner and the competition was on.
The Washington Post’s Kim Masters called Mr. Imus’ appearance in 1996 “a roast that turned into an inferno.” The radio shock jock, as President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton sat just feet away, joked that: “When Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gherig’s consecutive game record, the president was at Camden Yards doin’ play by play in the radio with John Miller. Bobby Bonilla hit a double, we all heard the President in his obvious excitement holler ‘Go Baby!’ I remember commenting at the time, I bet that’s not the first time he’s said that. Remember the Astroturf in the pickup?”
He also poked fun at ABC News’ Peter Jennings (who wasn’t there) and CBS News’ Dan Rather (who was.)
Mr. Imus was unrepentant (the New York Times reported that on his radio show the next Monday he said that he had “wimped out”) but the dinner committee issued a formal apology to the President, whose spokesman, Mike McCurry, called the routine “pretty bad.” C-Span denied an administration request to pull a rebroadcast of the night’s events, but Imus’s comments live on in cyberspace.
Subsequent hosts–among them Lewis Black, Ben Stein, Darrell Hammond, Mo Rocca and Steve Bridges–trod more middle ground. TBS’ impressionist Frank Caliendo, at the time just making a name for himself, brought the house down in 2006, sending Vice President Cheney into fits of laughter.
Mr. Clinton knew how to give it back. The 2000 dinner had a much-sought-after souvenir: Red and green “Free Leo” buttons and stickers being handed out by White House staffers in a reference to the news-versus-entertainment brouhaha involving ABC News sending a then-25-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, star of “Titanic,” to interview President Clinton for an Earth Day special.
The President, who was introduced that night not with the traditional “Hail to the Chief,” but with “Titanic” theme song “My Heart Will Go On,” quipped in his remarks that “ABC doesn’t know whether Leo and I had an interview, a walk-through or a drive-by.” As a stony-faced ABC News President David Westin looked on, he added that, “I’m not sure whether all this damage control is worth the effort: It’s a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the set of ‘This Week With Sam and Cokie,’ ” the network’s struggling Sunday morning show, and then continued: “Don’t you news people ever learn? It isn’t the mistake that kills you, it’s the cover-up.”
In 2003, the dinner was postponed from its March 20 date to June, due to uncertainty over the starting date for the Iraq War (a good call given that the invasion indeed began on the dinner’s original date.) The following year, President Bush came in for harsh criticism when his stand-up routine at the dinner include a slide show in which he joked about the search for weapons of mass destruction (one of the justifications for going into Iraq), showing him looking under the Oval Office furniture. Not everyone in the audience was laughing.
The following year, in 2005, the President and many other invited guests were unexpectedly off in Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral, so VP Dick Cheney filled in, and it was a sober event. CNN’s celebrity guests were a group of U.S. soldiers, wounded in Iraq, who were being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center
But Mr. Cheney was funnier in 2008, garbed in his supposed post-White House vacation clothes of fedora and sunglasses.
Still it was hard for him to White House adviser Karl Rove’s 2007 appearance, a bizarre moment in which, egged on by the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” entertainment guys, he got up on stage and “rapped” as “MC Rove.” His jerky dancing and multi-octave sound effects were bizarre; NBC Correspondent David Gregory, dancing alongside, just looked awkward.
Not all is controversial at the RTCA event. After NBC’s David Bloom died of a pulmonary embolism in 2003 while covering the Iraq War, the association established an award in his name, for excellence in enterprise reporting, that produces many damp-eyed moments each year when it is handed out. Another honor — the Joan Shorenstein Barone Award for Excellence in Washington-based National Affairs/Public Policy Broadcasting–is also bestowed each year at the dinner, in remembrance of the former CBS News producer.