National Press Club's 90th Bash

Article excerpt

What began as a whim to give reporters a place of their own has blossomed into the world's premier media organization, catering to both the press and presidents.

The 90th birthday of the National Press Club, April 3, begins much as any day in the club's recent history Sunrise-pink clouds dot a blue sky, resembling the Japanese cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin six blocks away.

Early-morning deliveries of pastries and newspapers are made as usual to the club on the 13th and 14th floors of the National Press Building at 14th and F streets.

Early risers pedal stationary bicycles and lift weights in the club's gym, an activity that would have been unimaginable to reporters 90 years ago. Others are giving the morning papers a read over coffee, juice, rolls and fruit in the club's Fourth Estate dining room.

Representatives of trade and special-interest groups stack their news releases on tables outside rented meeting rooms, preparing for news conferences scheduled to inform reporters -- and their readers and listeners -- about a myriad of issues.

At 9 a.m., club activities begin. The library, a godsend to freelance reporters and small news bureaus without their own

reference centers, opens its 21 computer stations connected to the Internet and major computer reference services. Retired members browse in the reading room among U.S. and foreign newspapers, magazines, newsletters and professional journals. Other members, in need of specific information, seek help at the reference desk.

A press-club morning newsmaker, Zurab Zhavania, chairman of the parliament of the Republic of Georgia, discusses with reporters the current situation in the Caucasus, including the recent attack on President Eduard Shevardnadze.

At another morning-newsmaker program, 95-year-old GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina notes, "Two Washington institutions have been around to witness most of the events that define the American experience of the 20th century: Myself and the National Press Club." He promises to be around for the club's centennial celebration, when he will be 105.

A morning panel discusses the current state of the press: "Chasing the truth at any speed -- getting it first and getting it right." Senior Washington correspondents including Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Frank Sesno of CNN and moderator Marvin Kalb of Harvard University focus on issues facing news media, including how fairly to report the alleged escapades of President Clinton.

At 11 a.m. the Reliable Source bar opens, serving more chablis and Perrier than hard liquor in these health-conscious nineties.

The club's luncheon speaker, retired CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, a member of the club for almost a half-century and first recipient of its prestigious Fourth Estate Award, warns members and those listening on C-Span, National Public Radio and other networks, against buyouts in the news business and overemphasis on stockholder profits. Cronkite laments that few organizations have foreign bureaus anymore, which he believes is dangerous. "We must tether the auditors," Cronkite says, "and free the editors."

In a small room on the 14th floor, members are engaged in two activities which have been a part of the press club's life since its first day. The Friday afternoon small-stakes poker game begins, gin-rummy players deal the cards, and at the nearby pool table the balls roll and click.

As evening arrives on this anniversary, more than 1,000 members and guests arrive for the birthday celebration, including two representing speakers at the original open house in 1908 -- Japanese Ambassador Kunihiko Saito and a "Buffalo Bill" Cody look-alike.

It was tough to be a newsman when the club was founded -- yes, there were women in the business back then, if not in the club, including some of the most famous and best paid. …