NAB President Emeritus Eddie Fritts can still command an audience with the top names in Washington. But this time, he didn't even have to ask.
The guest list included Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, both Mississippi Senators--Trent Lott and Thad Cochran--current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and former Chairman Dick Wiley, Tribune's Dennis Fitzsimons, Clear Channel's Lowry Mays, MPAA's Jack Valenti, Disney's Preston Padden, and on and on.
The occasion was a celebration Tuesday night at the Willard hotel in Washington where, we have it on good authority--Fritts himself--the term "lobbyist" was coined back in 1870 during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, who used to hold court in the lobby.
Fritts recalled then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Bob Packwood's pronouncement at Fritt's first NAB convention that the association couldn't lobby its way out of a paper bag. "That gave me an early indication that I should keep my head down because they use live ammunition here in Washington."
Fritts took that as a challenge, and looking back on the intervening years, called the tribute "a celebration of 23 years of success."
Fritts, who has been transitioning out of the NAB since the arrival of new President David Rehr in December, will remain a consultant to the association and has already reportedly set up temporary downtown offices.
He told the high-powered audience that they had not seen the last of him.
"As my dear friend Jack Valenti said, retirement is a synonym for decay. Well," said Fritts, "down home we would say it a bit differently: If you ever slow down, the back end will run over the front end. I don't intend to let that happen."
Instead, Fritts said, "in the very near future you can expect to hear an announcement on the creation of The Fritts Group LLC, and we'll be seeing many of you around town."
The salute portion of the evening began with an introduction by NAB Board Chairman Bruce Reese, who said Fritts deserves the thanks of every radio and TV broadcaster for his victories on Capitol Hill, at the FCC, and in the courts. He ticked off the victories: The 1992 Cable Act; the 1996 Telecommunications Act; DTV spectrum allocations; the roll-out of DTV; and digital radio.
Reese then provided the night's largest laugh line, and it was inadvertent.
"As Eddie has frequently said," Reese concluded, "in Washington, there are no final victories, and no final deceits...defeats."
Order could not be restored for quite a while as the laughter rolled over the crowd.
Lott got some laughs as well, but his were calculated as he ribbed and mini-roasted his old friend. He said Fritts had an "unusual approach" for an association head, adding, "he actually knew and explained the substance. For those of us who usually don't pay attention to substance we found it very helpful."
Lott told Fritts that "with lobby reform and ethics reform underway, you picked a good time to leave. You're not going to be able to give me any more of those nice NAB gifts, you know, the mugs with the emblem on them."
But most of the night was reserved for serious praise, including on a tribute video featuring even more bigwigs. Valenti called Fritts "probably the single most successful association president in Washington."
Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Commission, said that Fritts' biggest victory was probably the 1992 Cable Act's inclusion of must carry, which Barton pointed out he had voted against. David Rehr faces the same uphill climb on digital must-carry, which Barton also opposes.
Massachusetts Democratic Representative Ed Markey, who was frequently on the opposite side of Fritts on broadcast issues, said: "Believe me, when lawmakers needed to hear the braodcasting industry's perspective on something, Eddie Fritts could broadcast a signal at high voltage, and his Nielsen ratings were always through the roof."
Senator Stevens said Fritts "brought lobbying out into the public. He made certain everybody knew where they stood. There wasn't any back-door stuff."
And, sticking with the door theme, former FCC Commissioner and Chairman James Quello, said: "When he didn't win an argument, he left the door open so you could come back."
There was one more door reference. As a parting tribute, Reese surprised Fritts with a photo of the doorway of the newly renamed Edward O. Fritts Conference Center at the NAB headquarters in Washington.