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McDonald's can rescue dinner from ethics concern


Ethics are to journalism what Velveeta is to cheese.

Which is to say that journalists have ethics, but you don't want to sniff them too closely.

Not truly a profession, journalism lacks any universal ethical code.

The Founding Fathers wanted it this way even though the press in their time was venal and scurrilous. That's how much faith the Founding Fathers had in the concept of press freedom.

And how do the journalists of today reward that faith?

We dress up in tuxedos and ball gowns and invite bigshots to fancy dinners where the president of the United States is compelled to read jokes written for him by his staff and then undergo good-natured ribbing that he pretends not to despise.

Which Thomas Jefferson may not have anticipated.

It has become politically correct for journalists to criticize these dinners. A few weeks ago, the New Yorker magazine began a short piece with the line: "The annual White House

Correspondents' Dinner is one of the grimmest social occasions in Washington. . . ."

Me, I like that dinner.

One reason is that I look swell in a tux. Another reason is that I like to watch my bosses get drunk. ("You don't remember saying I could do my column from the south of France? Perhaps there is much you do not remember from last night. Perhaps these photographs will remind you.")

In any case, not only do more than a thousand journalists show up each year at the Washington Hilton for this dinner, but the biggest names from the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government also attend as guests.

Which probably makes it the greatest collection of intellects to gather together in one room since Spiro Agnew dined alone.

But is it an ethical violation for government bigshots to accept a fancy dinner from journalists? Most journalists would not accept a fancy dinner from a government bigshot.

And for a few years now, the Office of Government Ethics, which makes the rules for the 142 executive branch agencies, has said that government employees may not accept food or drink of more than $20 in value from either lobbyists or journalists.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner costs a hundred bucks a plate, but under George Bush the rule was suspended for big press bashes.

The Clinton White House announced some weeks ago, however, that the rule now would apply to all dinners.

Some journalists went to the White House and argued against the rule. We are not lobbyists, they said, and we should not be covered by the same rules. Reporters are not buying the time of White House personnel in order to pursue a private agenda such as getting a bill passed for General Motors.

Reporters gain information that is passed on to the public so the people can be informed as to the activities of their government. And an informed public is the cornerstone of democracy.

The White House was not totally unsympathetic. And it suggested certain compromises. But these were argued over, too. (Get two journalists in one room and you will emerge with four opinions.)

Then on Tuesday, the White House announced it was suspending for six months the ethical rule for big press dinners.

Was everybody happy? Of course not. Some news organizations had no trouble with what the White House was doing, but the Washington Post said it would not attend the correspondents' ++ dinner on May 1 because journalists should not seek self-serving exceptions to government ethics rules.

Bill Clinton is not covered by the ethics rule, but he probably did not want to attend an event his staff was forbidden to attend.

He has yet to accept his invitation to the dinner, but he probably will show up, even though controversy is not what he or the press wanted.

But I have a solution that will satisfy all parties. It will allow White House guests to attend the dinner without suspending any rules:

The current rule allows government employees to accept dinners below $20 in value.

So instead of having expensive hotel food at the dinner, have the affair catered by Clinton's favorite restaurant: McDonald's.

How do you keep Clinton from eating more than $20 worth?

Easy. Keep him away from the fries.

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