For D.C. press corps' strange bedfellows, the high-and-mighty tone isn't just an act

January 31, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

WASHINGTON -- I AM SITTING in the belly of the beast.

I have ventured to our nation's capital so that I might observe more closely the two most reviled subgroups of the human species: Washington politicians and the people who cover them (which sounds like a working book title).

Many of these glitterati are gathered at the Arena Stage for a benefit reading (at $500 a pop) of "The Front Page," a play about slimy newsmen and slimy politicians, as if there could be any other kind.

Dick Armey is there.

And Sam Donaldson is there.

Barney Frank is there.

And Cokie Roberts is there.

Robert Reich is there.

And Mark Shields is there.

It looks exactly like a Georgetown party. Or maybe an edition of "Crossfire."

We are very early into the play when I notice something significant, and not just that, as actors, these guys are pretty good dressers. No, what I notice is that the newsguys are more famous than the politicians.

Dick Armey is the majority leader of the House (yeah, really), and yet he doesn't have the Q ratings of Richard Dawson. Health secretary Donna Shalala, who would kill to be as well known as (the also short) Nina Totenberg, who's also in the play.

I notice something else, too.

You remember the play. You saw the movie anyway. In whatever version, it's very funny, particularly the Greek chorus as performed by cop reporters from the the Journal, the Post, the American, the Daily News and other papers back in the days when cities actually had competing newspapers and the cop beat mattered more than the Washington beat.

In this reading, the newsmen are played by, among others, Ben Bradlee and Sam Donaldson and Mark Shields and Johnny Apple and the Sun's own avuncular Jack Germond.

Think about it.

This is the big-foot media.

If these guys were any more removed from the cop beat, they'd be dating Lisa Marie Presley.

In the play, the guys are sitting around playing poker while waiting out the all-night vigil for Earl Williams, who's about to be hanged in order to get politicians elected and also to sell more papers.

Set in the '30s, when reporters made 50 bucks a week, they're betting for dimes. During rehearsal, Sam Donaldson says, "The smallest thing I've got is a 100-dollar bill."

Donaldson, who got famous for yelling questions at presidents, meaning he could have found alternative work, say, as a hog caller, makes about $2 million from ABC and plenty more from speeches, investments and, yes, sheep ranching.

Do you hate him?

There's a book out by James Fallows, a very smart guy, who writes for the Atlantic Monthly, which is also possibly part of the media, on why America hates the media. He says they've got good reason, especially when it comes to the entrenched, smugger-than-thou Washington media who make the big bucks and spend less time reporting than they do pundit-ing on national TV.

Fallows points out that Donaldson, Roberts and George Will (who wasn't in the play, perhaps because he just wasn't believable as a real person) all do speeches for corporate groups and won't reveal their incomes. Who are they responsible to?

When Donaldson, the sheep rancher, was faced with a photographer trying to take shots of his New Mexico ranch house, the investigative newsman had the photographer thrown off his property.

I was in New Hampshire recently watching the Republican presidential candidates chase each other and potential primary voters around. We're at the statehouse in Concord where Phil Gramm, who actually thinks he can be president, is walking around to a buzz of appreciation. Until the appreciators see Donaldson.

"To heck with Gramm," says one office worker. "I want Sam's autograph."

How does a lowly out-of-town type like myself see this?

There are some obvious observations. Just taking Sam Donaldson, I learn you can be famous on TV without having TV hair.

Perhaps more important, the unelected, unrepresentative media, which focus on horse races instead of issues and trivialize themselves by screaming at each other on the "The McLaughlin Group," are a plague on the American political scene. As Fallows says, they undermine American democracy.

It's a shame, all right. I just wish I could figure out how to get in on it.

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