Sneaking into the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
‘Follow me. Look like you’re meant to be here.’
I get the feeling David Smith has done this before. He’s a former foreign correspondent for ITN and Channel 4 News. It’s 26 April, 2008, and he now works for Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations. And together we’re striding through the kitchens of the Hilton Hotel, Washington DC. Switching left, right, past stoves and waiters carrying trays high above their heads. Yep, just like that bit in Goodfellas.
We walk up to a heavyset man in a dinner jacket with a brightly coloured lapel pin and a wiggly earpiece. David says something about ‘collecting our passes’ with the self-assurance of a man who always collects his pass on the other side of a US Secret Service cordon. Incredibly, the agent allows two odd-looking Brits through.
We’re now officially gate-crashing the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
David and I have been close friends ever since we met on a bus in Argentina’s wine lands. David is used to interviewing world leaders and reporting on crises (he was Channel 4 News’ man on the ground on 9/11). He then retired to make wine near Mendoza with his wife, Sonia Ruseler. She was a leading anchor at ITN and CNN before she gave it up to go to wine school.
David heard I was near Washington and said we should try and crash the dinner. I was staying with a friend on the Chesapeake Bay who lent me his truck to get to the city. As I set off, he ran up the driveway to stop me and remove a handgun from the glove box and a rifle from the back. A few years later it turned out he was connected to the mob, though I should have guessed when he told me his bed previously belonged to Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano.
The dinner isn’t actually held at the White House. It’s at the DC Hilton. You’ll have seen it on TV. The one Ronald Reagan was walking past when he was shot. I recall this right now as David blags our way past Secret Service agents charged with ensuring such a thing never happens again. They’ll take a bullet for the president. I’m really, really hoping we won’t take a bullet in pursuit of free canapés and chardonnay.
We enter a long, narrow corridor. David hurries along, like the White Rabbit, ever deeper into Wonderland. Suddenly there’s a door. David throws it open and heads out. I follow, into a blaze of flashes and noise. Pop, pop, pop. Click, click, click. Flash, flash, flash.
The door led straight onto the red carpet. ‘Hey! Hey! YOU! Yeah, You! YOU BALD ASSHOLE. Get out of the way!’
David takes my arm and pulls me to one side of the scrum of press photographers. Pamela Anderson twists around to see who the idiot is who’s just ruined all the shots of her, standing tall in a white dress with plunging neckline and daring side-slit up to her hip.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an odd mix of celebrity party, powerbroker chatting shop and political event. David grabs me a drink. He has people to speak to and power to broker. I just have too much to drink. David is immediately engrossed in conversation.
I wander off for a canapé and another glass of lukewarm wine. An elderly man and a naval officer are standing looking into the room. ‘Hullo.’
‘Hi, I’m Joe.’
‘Hello, I’m Charlie. This is Mike.’
Charlie is tall and appears even more so in the cowboy boots he’s wearing under his black dress trousers. But even more striking is his white tuxedo. ‘What do you do, Charlie?’
‘I’m retired now,’ he replies in a Texan drawl, ‘but I used to be in Congress.’ I’m halfway through the sentence ‘ha ha, they made a film about a congressman called Charlie Wilson…’ when I realise that’s exactly who he is.
I try my luck with the heavily decorated naval officer to Charlie’s left. ‘Are you an admiral?’
‘My uncle’s an admiral in the Royal Navy, maybe you’ve come across him?’ He hasn’t.
‘And do you still serve at sea, admiral?’
‘At the Pentagon?’
‘Quite a bit, yes.’
‘What’s your role these days?’
‘I’m the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.’
David was by now looking over. I’m being garrulous and trying to persuade the world’s most powerful military officer to drop me a line when he’s in London. ‘We’ll go out drinking! I’ll invite my uncle. You’ll have lots in common.’
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is insisting he’s ‘kinda busy right now’, which is a fair assessment of the task of overseeing the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. David comes across and intervenes. ‘Ha ha, yes, hello, lovely to meet you, admiral, congressman… David Smith… yes ha ha…’ I’m hurried away.
I’m half-expecting a bollocking. But no. David loves it. He wants to see who else I can invite on an extraordinarily inappropriate pub crawl. We’ve gatecrashed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. We might as well have fun.
The results are mixed. General Colin Powell is polite, but his bodyguards are firm. After a handshake and pleasantries, I’m physically lifted off the ground and moved to one side to make way for him. Madeleine Albright’s people are even firmer. We don’t get close. The British Ambassador, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, is charming. We even start planning some sort of wine evening at the embassy in Washington. It turns out one of his team was at school with my cousin. What a small world. Lady Sheinwald intervenes. Julia is firm. She has a sense that this plan hatched between her husband and a squiffy wine merchant who is connected via an old school network isn’t going anywhere helpful. Julia – actually Dr Julia Dunne – occupies me while Sir Nigel chats to David. She broke new ground as an ambassador’s wife by working at the Food and Drug Administration on paediatric medicines, rather than just staying at home and planning table settings. We talk about it. And then David and Sir Nigel return. I later discover that those ten minutes led to a nudge in international relations. Because that’s how the White House Correspondents’ Dinner works.
I watch as more deals are done. David negotiates a slot on a weekend news show to give airtime to a humanitarian crisis in Congo. It feels uncomfortable – in poor taste – that access to food and water for the world’s poor is arranged over shrimp cocktails. But that’s realpolitik, baby. And just over there, sitting in an armchair with people queuing up to greet him, is the man behind that term: Henry Kissinger.
He’s just one of a surreal sea of faces. Perez Hilton looks like a caricature of himself. Salman Rushdie is there. A pre-incarceration Martha Stewart. A pre-anti-vax Jenny McCarthy. A post-Austin Powers Rob Lowe. The Jonas Brothers. Remember the Jonas Brothers? No, me neither.
In the corner of one room, Larry King looks like he died but everyone forgot to tell him. We slump into a sofa. He’s got a Scotch. But he likes wine. He likes London. Yep, he’d love to meet up in London. Of course, we’ll go out when he’s in town. I ask if he means it. Yes, he means it.
President Bush (Dubya) is in the distance. But in the foreground, there’s almost as much attention for Heidi and Spencer from The Hills. Remember them? I only do because they were so cross at me insisting on a group selfie. At this point I’m unstoppable. I tell them I LOVE the show. I watch it all the time. They’re so good in it. You know that scene… where they… you know… the thing… Spencer says he didn’t think it was available in the UK yet. Then Rosario Dawson appears. A crowd forms around her. When suddenly the crowd parts…
‘JOE FATTORINI…’ A lady I’d met a few days before at a wine dinner is shouting my name. She’d told me an unrepeatable anecdote about Jeremy Paxman. Now she was here again – looking like TV cook Jennifer Patterson wearing lime-green taffeta. She ushers me into her circle, where she’s showing Wolf Blitzer of The Situation Room her Japanese handbag that’s covered in lacquered images of sex scenes. ‘You should see the Secret Service agents when I take that into the White House…’
Lovely Wolf Blitzer. He’s not a drinker. He passes on the invitation. But it didn’t matter. I had Larry King’s number. He was definitely coming. Until last year, when he didn’t just look like he’d died – he actually did.
And then it’s over. Guests leave in everything from cabs, sedans to Secret Service presidential motorcade. I walk to Dupont Circle, then on to Pennsylvania Avenue until I reach the White House. Well, since I’m already gatecrashing… No, this time I’ll pass. And anyway, my feet are killing me. I’d borrowed a spare pair of David’s shoes and they’re too small for me.
I took a look at myself in a shop window. My suit cost $100 from a budget store on the way down. My shirt was barely ironed. The bowtie was a clip-on. But here’s a piece of advice for future gate-crashers: the Secret Service are suckers for a pair of patent-leather, barathea silk-trimmed, Jermyn Street shoes.