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An Italian Dish

Dorothy Parker had The Roundt able, New York has Michaels… Washington has Teatr o Goldoni and Dine & Dish

Gossip is Best Served HOT

Forget martinis and pina coladas, the Dine & Dish monthly gabfests are an off-the-record inside scoop lunch: The shenanigans of politicians, reporters, lobbyists and all things that make Washington tick.

Several years ago, CBS early show producer, Penny Britell; MSNBC’s Craig Crawford and Publicist Janet Donovan decided to invite a group of media folks to form what has now become the Dine & Dish club. The idea was reinforced by a hefty dose of political gossip at the RNC Convention in New York where they entertained at the Algonquin Roundtable with FOX News’ Rita Cosby, best selling author Larry Leamer, Vaughn Ververs of the Hotline, and assorted other guests. Most of the original group remains in tact with the exception of Hardball producer Ann Klenk who is glued to Chris Matthews 24/7, and Ed Henry, who moved on to a consuming gig at CNN. To a packed luncheon crowd at Teatro in December, WL collected on-therecord tidbits in between fritto misto and lobster risotto. The first order of business: finding out more about Dine & Dish.

Dine & Dish: Ingredients

Inside the Beltway’s John McCaslin and Washingtonian’s and The Examiner’s Harry Jaffe
Publicist Janet Donovan and Journalist Craig Crawford
The Hotline’s Danielle Decker-Jones

Former Washingtonian editor-at-large Chuck Conconi

L´antipasto: on Dine & Dish

WL: Tell us about the origin of the Dine& Dish group.

Harry Jaffe: I’m here because of the free meal. John McCaslin: Chuck [Conconi] and I used to do what was called the ‘Spiteful Bunch Lunch’ at the Four Season every month when Stan Bromley was here. After Stan went to San Francisco, this kind of evolved. It was a lot of fun and now Jan is [Donovan] doing similar things.

WL: What are the favorite topics?

[Immediately slipping into off-the-record mode, an anonymous Disher responds: “I would say who split up with whom in the media, and who’s sleeping with whom— those kinds of things.”]

WL: What are some of the favorite topics?

Danielle Decker-Jones: I like talking about the 2008 Presidential race.

WL: Have you been handicapping Presidential the race?

Criag Crawford: I was stuck with Mark Warner for a while.

WL: Do you think Allen’s running?

Crawford: I think he’s running—he’s the front runner for the Republican Nomination. Jaffe: I think its Clinton-Warner versus Allen- Bush, Jeb Bush.

McCaslin: I still think it may be a Republican dark horse. I don’t see it being George Allen at this stage. I just don’t think he has the experience he needs and the name recognition outside of Washington circles.

WL: What about Senator Frist?
No, I don’t think its Senator Frist either. I still think it remains to be seen. I don’t know if it will be a big shocker, but then again Jeb Bush was obviously the favorite of the Bush family (in 2000). On the Democratic side, I think it will be Hilary Rodham Clinton; but I doubt that either Allen or Clinton are going to win because senators never become president, except for JFK.

Chuck Conconi: I think Allen is a good possibility; I’ll go along with that. And the Democrats, I don’t think they’ve gotten themselves organized yet. There is still more than enough time for one of the other Democratic state governors to come up. Who is one of the really good Democratic governors right now? Crawford: The North Carolina governor that can impersonate Hank Hill. But that’s the problem…I can’t think of his name. (It’s Michael Easley) I even interviewed him for a column and I had him do Hank Hill [cartoon character]. Janet Donovan: I think it’s going to be Hilary against McCain.

WL: Danielle, you’re the only one taking the fifth on this issue.

Decker-Jones: I think it’s a great battle and it’s so fun to watch.

Il primo: On sources

WL: Do you have to coddle sources by publishing their leaks in order to keep them feeding you information?

Jaffe: Sourcing is one of the most important things that all of us deal with. And if we couldn’t protect sources then we couldn’t find out anything. That doesn’t mean if a source tells me something that I’ll go with it. It means that I’ll check it out and if it leads to something then it’s used. But Watergate, and any of the great scandals that have been broken in the media, only broke because of confidential sources.

Crawford: Here’s the analogy I would make: In our business information is currency. It’s like the business world; we’re making deals all the time, you know? If you’re buying or selling a property, you’re making deals all the time. We’re buying and selling information, and the information is currency, and sometimes you hold it, and sometimes you take it, and sometimes you publish, and sometimes you don’t. What people don’t realize is that we’re just making deals all the time.


Il secondo: On Woodward

WL: Michael Wolf recently wrote this about Bob Woodward in Vanity Fair: “There may be no greater independent, unaccountable, and intelligent operation in Washington. Woodward’s dismissal of the entire Plame investigation turned out to be a cagey dissembling. He turned out to be the very center of the deal.” Is it true that nobody is more octopus like in his Washington relationship as Woodward? Is he the final information arbiter? Is he the ultimate station chief?

Jaffe: I defend Woodward on this point. I can understand him wanting to keep the secret that he had this confidential source, because that’s our only leverage now. Now that we have no legal rights—thanks to runaway courts—to protect sources, the only option is to keep secrets that you even had a source. Woodward’s unique. I worked with him for several years at the Washington Post and if we were ranking the great journalists of the world he would be up there, extraordinarily high—there’d be a huge gap before you saw Frank or the rest of them. He has a unique position, and I have always felt that Woodward has that sort of honesty and integrity. But I do think he screwed up on Larry King.

WL: How did he screw up?

Jaffe: He knew inside information and, yet, he said nothing.

Decker-Jones: He had the bombshell (information about Valerie Plame) a few weeks before the bombshell came out, and he said nothing—that’s what you’re talking about?

Jaffe: Well, that and the fact that he said there wasn’t anything to this investigation. You know, he essentially said: “It’s not important.” He shouldn’t have done that because he knew something that nobody else knew.

Conconi: What I don’t like about what Woodward did is that he agreed to testify to the grand jury and identify a source, but he didn’t agree to go public. The problem with this ‘access journalism’ and making deals is that if you lose sight of theprimary function—which is to serve the public and not your sources—things get messy.

McCaslin: I think a pervasive problem in journalism today is that so many of the journalists become the ‘players’ in Washington. Many of them are making tremendous salaries, more than the people they’re covering. So, who’s the player and who’s the official in Washington anymore? I agree with Chuck, I think the way Woodward handled this entire Plame affair raises a lot of red flags, journalistically and ethically speaking. At the same time, obviously, his journalism credentials speak for themselves….And how he has become the stenographer for the Bush White House I will never know—but he knows every sneeze and burp that takes place inside the White House.

Il Conto rno : On me dia acess to The White House

WL: In the same Vanity Fair article, Wolf writes: “In the media age and twentyfour seven news cycle, which has come to dominate politics since the end of the Cold War, the cool guys are those on the front lines of today’s most pressing battle: the one with the media. You have to trick the media before the media plays a trick on you. Strike and strike hard in lightning quick time before public opinion congeals and hardens. Is this the age of the message spook?”

Jaffe: Oh yes, there’s no question about that. I think the Bush administration has mastered this entirely. Internally, the control of the information is unprecedented. The Bush administration has controlled the information from the bottom—from the low level bureaucrat—all the way up to the top. The discipline of this administration is unparalleled as far as controlling information. They’re amazing. What’s happened is that politicians have gotten sophisticated at bypassing the media and convincing people that we’re liars and untrustworthy. It’s allowed politicians to get their own propaganda out unfiltered and unquestioned to a degree we haven’t seen before.

McCaslin: I agree with Harry. But with regard to, and going back to what he said about the communication of this White House, the Clinton White House ran a much more professional press operation, where they would return your phone call; and they seemed to have more scandals, it appears, than this administration will ever have, yet they always got back to you. This administration is afraid to talk, and I’m talking all the way down. Nobody is allowed to say anything. It’s phenomenal. I went to interview a low-level press person in government and she had to work her message through the political people just to make sure she was talking to me with their permission. That to me is pretty astounding. And the thing is they work for us. Let’s not forget the fact that everybody in government is paid for with our tax dollars; they are our employees. And so I think that the flow of information should not be controlled by the political people at the top, but instead by the bureaucrats working for us.

Conconi: Well, it’s always done that way, but I would disagree with some of what you’re saying: I think there are more scandals in this administration—much more serious scandal than the silly little sex scandals of the Clinton Administration. Here’s how I would compare this White House with perhaps the Reagan White House: The Reagan White House knew how Washington works; they were open; you could get information. This White House is
closed down, tight and locked.

WL: The White House Iraq group—the“taskforce” or internal working group assembled by Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card in summer of 2002 to create, in Bob Woodward’s description, the “echo” for the rationale for war—included the best of the Bush message specialists: Rove, Libby, Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes, among them. Was this, in essence, a clandestine countermedia unit?

Jaffe: That’s their job. They’re trying to control our information; and I think in this situation the Bush people have won at the beginning, but ultimately I think they’re losing the war because the facts actually do speak at the end.

Crawford: I don’t blame the government for trying to put out propaganda. The problem is the media just basically bought into it. The media is who failed the country.

McCaslin: Craig is absolutely right. The media has been lazy on this; they were dragged into believing the WMD justification for war. Some of this happened at the NY Times— and to me, the NY Times is a newspaper that is really embarrassing and deserves to be.

Decker-Jones: I counted this morning and it’s been 958 days since “mission accomplished.”

WL: After the Libby indictment, Nicholas Lehman–the long time Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, and now Dean of The Columbia Journalism school– wrote a strangely rationalized and almost impossible to decipher account of the media in the war, which seemed to suggest that because so much of the press in fact signed onto the Administration’s reasons for going to war, it necessitated a continued defense of the war. Did the press buy the Bush Administration’s argument for war

Crawford: I don’t think the media ever bought the rationale; they were just afraid of the public. What has changed is the drop in the President’s approval rating. That’s why we see more critical press about the war.

Jaffe: There’s always a certain amount of cheerleading when the country is supposed to be going to war. And I think the press, certainly the Washington Post, got caught up in that. I will give you an example–Walter Pincus’ stories about whether there really were weapons of mass destruction. Pincus kept writing time after time that “there are no WMD” and “guess what—there are no WMD” and the Washington Post kept burying it in page A17 or saying, “Sorry Walter, we can’t understand…”

WL: What explains that?

Jaffe: That’s a very good question. What Craig said is they were intimidated and that’s something frightening when our media and the big papers like the Washington Post and the NY Times get intimidated. That’s what bothers me more than anything.

il Dolce : The personal

WL: Craig, what’s it like to be on your first book tour for “Attack the Messenger?”

Crawford: One guy told me I was very confused and should get another job. I mean the thing is you get some very blunt questions—particularly when you’re sort of defending the media.

WL: Harry Jaffe, you cover inside the Washington Post, that’s your beat. There are lots of rumors going on. What can you tell us about what’s happening internally there?

Jaffe: They’re scared (unprintable) because they’re losing so many readers. They can’t figure out how to bring more people into reading the newspaper. And more people are reading the web site, but they don’t know how to justify the finances.

WL: John, what’s it like being a single parent? I understand you have custody of your child. You and Harry both do.
It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and that’s how I began writing the Inside the Beltway column, in fact. I was ready to find another angle in journalism that would allow me to work either mornings or afternoons so I could spend half the day with my daughter.

Jaffe: I don’t have total custody of my daughters, but I have learned something about women, which is that if you just shut up and let things pass, their feelings will change and come around.

WL: One word: Wonkette.

Decker-Jones: Hilarious.
Jaffe: Great cheekbones

WL: Chuck Conconi, you’ve been with Washingtonian since the beginning of time and now you’ve moved over to the corporate side.

Conconi: It’s interesting because a lot of people are down on PR people. My experience over the years is that, except only on about two occasions that I can think of, I’ve never been lied to by a PR person. I thought it was interesting to see what the other side is like, besides it pays a hell of a lot better. Janet has been a great source for all of us, and she’s one of the smarter PR people in town. Before the wrap, former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe stopped by to say hello. He and former D.C. prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste had been dining at Power Booth #5.

WL: Terry, when’s your book out?

McAuliffe: December or January.

WL: What’s the juiciest tidbit?

McAuliffe: [Coyly] It costs $34.95. At which point Decker-Jones slipped back to her office to get the scoop out before McCaslin, by filing this before him: THE HOTLINE, NATIONAL JOURNAL, Tuesday, December 13th. “$34.95”—Terry McAuliffe, asked today at Teatro Goldoni to reveal the juiciest tidbit in his ‘07 book.…And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how it works.



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