The Speaker’s Lobby: The Head Table

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

22 June 2009

Regular readers know this space know as “The Speaker’s Lobby.” It’s a reference to the long, ornate corridor in the Capitol where I mine lawmakers, aides and even journalists for information.

But for today, I’m taking a one-time digression and renaming this essay “The Head Table.” That’s because I’m not going to write about anything from Capitol Hill. But instead, my privilege to be at the head table for 65th Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner in Washington Friday night and sit next to the President of the United States.

The RTCA dinner is one of the annual “proms” held each spring in the nation’s capital. It’s a black tie affair with the more than 2,000 guests sporting tuxes and shimmering, long gowns. News organizations throw elaborate before and after parties. Comedians and a few politically-themed cartoon videos spawn chuckles. FOX, MSNBC, CNN and C-SPAN carry parts or all of the dinner live. The association honors intrepid reporters with two of the most-prestigious prizes in our profession: The Joan Barone Award and the David Bloom Award. And the city’s journalists and political elite hobnob over dinner and drinks with celebrities.

Lots of journalists can cover Washington for years and never even get to meet the president, let alone be in the same room. Let alone ask him a question. Let alone have a conversation with him. Let alone sit next to him and chat him up for the better part of an evening.

I don’t write this to brag. I write it because I’ve never had the pleasure of such a unique experience. And as a journalist, it’s my job to document and report.

I’m from Jacksonburg, OH, the smallest incorporated village in the state (population 52). It’s a rural farming community. So when I go home for visits, everyone always asks me to tell them something about PresidentClintonBushObama. People back there think I hang out with these guys all of the time. I don’t. Oh, I tell them about an interview I did with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) or something Rep Phil Hare (D-IL) told me. But frankly, they have no idea who Rohrabacher and Hare are. And they don’t care. They only want to know about the president.

Which is why getting to sit next to a president is so special.

It really hit me when I donned my tux late Friday afternoon. I have a picture of my grandfather, Herb Pergram, affixed to the wall of my Capitol Hill booth. I developed my love of politics from my grandfather. He lived next door and would always come over and talk politics with my parents while we ate breakfast on the weekend. And I’m quite sure my grandfather developed his interest in politics from a man who almost became president: James M. Cox.

Back in Jacksonburg, the Cox Farm sits right across the road from our place. It’s a palatial, 800-acre estate where they raised corn and soybeans, hogs, sheep and black angus cattle. A lane from the Cox Farm emptied directly in front of our property. Beside the lane squats a massive rock, mounted with a stainless steel plate. The plate describes the career of Cox. A newspaperman, Cox founded Cox Newspapers and what is now Cox Cable and Cox Broadcasting. But he was a politician, too. Known as “Boss Cox,” he served a few terms in the House of Representatives, two terms as Ohio governor and, with FDR as his running mate, was the 1920 Democratic nominee for president.

Cox lost that election to Warren Harding. But my grandfather regaled me with tales about talks he’d have with Cox, sitting for hours on my grandfather’s porch swing and talking politics. I thought that was a pretty impressive brush with greatness. So I’d always listen when my grandfather would talk about politics and Cox.

So Friday afternoon, I looked up at the picture of my grandfather as I popped on my cuff links and polished my wing tips. I pondered what Herb Pergram would think about his grandson sitting next to the president. Herb Pergram was born in 1899. I wondered if he ever thought the U.S. would elect an African American, to say nothing of a president named Barack Obama.

As a journalist, the presidency isn’t quite my thing. I’ve always covered Congress. The first president I saw in person was Gerald Ford. My parents once took me into town to watch Mr. Ford speed by in an open-air limousine.

I didn’t see another president in person until college. As a part-time radio reporter, I covered a speech by President George H.W. Bush at a Cincinnati hotel. I then stalked his motorcade across town and caught a glimpse of Mr. Bush dining at The Maisonette, the most-elite establishment in the city. Needing details for my report, I later conned the maitre d’ into telling me what Mr. Bush ordered.

When I came to Washington and worked at C-SPAN, I met President Clinton early one Sunday morning when I helped produce a program at the White House. I shook hands  with President George W. Bush a few times at previous Radio-TV Correspondents Dinners. I have photos from all of those episodes. All produced brief chit-chats. But they were just momentary encounters.

Friday was different.

First, the United States has never had a rock star president. Members of the RTCA board and our special guests walked onto the dais first. The group included members of Congress and well-known Capitol Hill figures. But everything was different once the president hit the stage. Mr. Obama took his seat next to me. And the crowd erupted.

A 15-foot “no-man’s land” separated the head table from the rest of the ballroom. As soon as Mr. Obama entered the stage, a phalanx of people crushed the rope line at the edge of the no-man’s land, trying to snap pictures of the president. Mr. Obama and I talked quietly while dozens of flashbulbs popped in front of us and people jockeyed for position. I’m not used to sitting next to the most-famous person on the planet.

President Obama is iconic. People would always clamor to score a picture of the president. But it’s a different when it’s Barack Obama.

After a few minutes, the Secret Service halted the Beatles-esque rush and shooed everyone back to their tables. Mr. Obama and I chatted about lots of things.

I certainly can’t speak for the president, but he seemed to enjoy our conversation. I know I did. And we both laughed a lot. So didn’t feel too bad when I tweaked Mr. Obama for a comment he made earlier in the week on CNBC. President Obama made a veiled reference to FOX when he commented that he’s “got one television station this is entirely devoted to attacking my administration.”

When my turn came at the lectern to present the Barone and Bloom awards, I smiled at Mr. Obama and joked that “this is one of the rare times where the president’s going to have to watch somebody from FOX.”

The room howled and President Obama grinned.

The president got me back a bit later during his remarks. He told the crowd that if everyone looked under their seat, they would find they were the owner of a car company. Mr. Obama then looked right at me and said “FOX, you get AIG!”

I’ve never aspired to meet celebrities. I idolized Pete Rose as a boy. I’d be fascinated to talk with him someday. In April, I met Marty Brennaman, the legendary voice of the Cincinnati Reds. I always wanted to meet Brennaman because I spent so much time listening to him on the radio as the soundtrack of summer. It would have been fascinating to talk to Rod Serling, creator and host of “The Twilight Zone.” But Serling died in 1975.

So as we talked, I also observed the president. I wondered if he’d laugh when we played the over-the-top animated, JibJab video “He’s Barack Obama.” He found it amusing. I wondered if he would sing the national anthem when they presented the colors. He did. I worried if I committed a social faux pas by once sitting down before he did.

Good friends sometimes call me “Dr. Doom.” That’s because in the post 9-11 world, I contemplate terrorism scenarios and cite potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited around Washington.

Of course, before the Secret Service escorted the President and the head table into the ballroom, they held us backstage in the kitchen. The combination of kitchens, big events and politicians scare me. As we lingered in the kitchen, my mind raced to 1968 and Sirhan Sirhan assassinating RFK in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

At one point during the dinner, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs came over to the president and whispered something in his ear. I watched Mr. Obama closely to see if he tensed up or if his countenance changed. I detected nothing. But for just an instant, I could think of only three words: My Pet Goat.

Finally when the president left, I checked my BlackBerry and cell phone. I had dozens of emails and text messages from friends in the audience and those watching on TV. It didn’t matter. Democrat or Republican. They all wanted to know what the president had to say. What was he like? What did we talk about? How did I snare such a seat? All were interested in the president.

So after Mr. Obama left, I talked with the person to my right, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY). We had a great time. But with due respect to the chairwoman, no one back in Jacksonburg will care what she had to say. They flooded my in-box about President Obama.

So I drove home in the wee-hours of Saturday morning. I pulled off my cuff links and deposited them in a box near my bed. And I thought of my grandfather and his talks in the swing with James M. Cox, the man who came up just short of the White House. Meantime, I had just spent a night chatting with a man who did. Someone, who regardless of his policies, achievements or failures, will be remembered long after other presidents are forgotten.

And I wished my grandfather was there with President Obama and me. He would have enjoyed spending the night talking politics. Just like he used to do back on the porch swing in Jacksonburg.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. His grandfather Herb Pergram lived from 1899 to 1996 and served in France in World War I. He retired from ARMCO Steel in Middletown, OH in 1967.