Steele: “I’m the Gift That Keeps on Giving”

Chatting with the GOP chair—and other tales from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

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This past weekend at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the pre- and post- parties and events, I had several interesting moments with Hollywood and DC celebrities: Mike Myers, Peter Orszag, Richard Belzer, David Axelrod (“Isn’t Robert Gibbs doing a great job?”), Goldie Hawn, Valerie Jarrett, Todd Palin, Rahm Emanuel, Matthew Modine, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Val Kilmer, Desiree Rogers, Carole King, Eric Holder. I never saw ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was supposed to be at the dinner, and I did have a couple of questions for him. I nearly asked Sting if he remembered me interviewing him 30 years ago in the locker room of Rhode Island Junior College—right after he was screaming at Stewart Copeland, “you can’t keep a beat!” But I elected not to; Sting was deep in conversation with Kevin Bacon. (Fill in your own degrees-of-separation joke.) And I passed up the opportunity to elbow my way through the admiring throng surrounding Colin Powell at the Newsweek pre-dinner reception to ask if he believes he owes an apology to the American public for having enabled the Bush-Cheney administration. After all, everyone around him looked so happy to be there. Why spoil it all? Through all of this, perhaps my most telling exchange came with Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman.

I had just passed through the metal detectors to enter the cavernous ballroom of the Washington Hilton–hey, look, it’s Tom and Katie!—and I turned around to spot Steele right behind me. He shot me a big smile and exclaimed, “Hey, man!” And he shook my hand heartily, clasping my arm with his other hand. Just like we were BFFs.

I don’t know if we’ve ever met. But certainly I’ve discussed him and his exploits on television—and not usually in a flattering manner.

Good evening, Chairman, I said, how are you doing these days?

“Just great,” he said, upbeat all the way.

“Well, I have to say, thank you,” I said. “You’ve been good for business.” I was, of course, referring to all the not-so-smart things he has said or done that have become fodder for political journalists and cable news pundits.

He leaned back, pulling himself to his full height, and, laughing, proclaimed, “I’m the gift that keeps on giving.” Almost as if he were proud of that. Certainly, he was just engaging in that self-deprecating humor that pols are taught to deploy. But it struck me as odd that he would beam so much as he said that. I wondered about the guy.

“I’ve always been of the view,” I said, “that party chairs ought not to be seen or heard but should stick to managing the party mostly behind the scenes.” Hint, hint.

“That’s what I keep telling them,” he said. Them? I wasn’t sure who “them” was. But it seemed as if he meant Republican insiders. And that was odd. Was Steele suggesting that he would prefer not to be in the public light as much but that “them” wanted him in front of the television cameras and microphones representing the GOP—rather than doing all that inside work? (Days earlier, The Washington Times had reported that Steele had signed a secret pact with his critics within the Republican National Committee that placed constraints on how he could spend the party’s millions of dollars.)

I was just about to ask him about this puzzling remark. Did he really want to be out of the limelight and toiling at his desk at party HQ on the nitty-gritty of field operations and the like? That didn’t seem to be his forte—or cup of tea. But someone caught his attention–Cruise? Axelrod? I couldn’t tell—and Steele went bounding off. And, besides, there’s Forest Whitaker!

Oh, back to Steele: I couldn’t help thinking that this guy is not a serious fellow. But he is indeed the gift that keeps on giving—especially to the Democrats. And he sure did look like he was having fun.

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