The actual main dish at the annual FCC Chairman's Dinner sponsored by the Federal Communications Bar Association was a combination of dry rubbed smoked roasted tenderloin and Tilapia, but they should have given Chairman Kevin Martin the option of duck (as in "duck!") given the barbs aimed his way from a trio of roasters.
An informal poll following the dinner, which drew a record 1,600 lawyers and the occasional scribe to the Washington Hilton Thursday night, was that NAB President Emeritus Eddie Fritts got in the best shots.
He was joined by Former FCC Chairman and Wiley, Rein & Fielding partner Dick Wiley and AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi in mixing those shots with a chaser of praise for Martin.
The jokes tended to play off Martin's conservative Republican roots and his boyish, bespectacled looks, which evoked more than one Harry Potter reference.
"I really know Chairman Potter, uh, Martin," joked Wiley, "ever since he was a young laywer at our firm. He was the only associate who joined us directly out of grade school. He was so young that we had to initiate a whole new associate evaluation program--one that we called No Child Left Behind."
Fritts said that "Kevin Martin is so young that, when he showed up late for work one day, local broadcasters located him by issuing an Amber Alert." And, invoking the child-friendly Michael Jackson, Fritts added that Martin was "the only public official with an open invitation to the Neverland Ranch. "
Fritts said that when he had first arrived for the dinner, he found Martin "counting the doors around the perimeter, and I said, 'What's up?' And he said, 'Well, I just wanted you to know that there is at least one Bush guy who has an exit strategy.'"
Cicconi's "Bush soldier" shot was aimed a bit closer to the jugular. Pointing out that Martin had been one of the Bush lawyers dispatched to Florida during the 2000 election, he said Martin had been sent to defend truth, justice, and the American way ... or some feel subverting truth, justice and the American way."
"My speech will go five minutes," said Fritts,"or as the lawyers in the room call it, 15 billable hours."
Commenting on the dinner, which began with a "Virginia peanut with Taso ham soup" and ended with a "flourless chocolate souffle," Fritts said: "Boy, what a meal. I hope you all ordered anything you wanted – after all, Kevin Martin is a big fan of a la carte.
"Speaking of a la carte, we all know that the FCC last week completely reversed itself on a la carte cable programming. To give you an idea how big a flip flop this was, even John Kerry was impressed."
Fritts' other hits included:
"Kevin is a Republican. Kevin gets to serve a five-year term. This is not to be confused with Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff, whose terms will be considerably longer."
"Kevin is so conservative he wants to take the F out of the FCC."
"Kevin is more conservative than Michael Powell. I’m told that they argued over the Janet Jackson case. It turns out that Kevin wanted to fine both breasts."
"Kevin has big changes planned for television. He’s determined to get sex off the airwaves. Kevin also wants to get crime off of TV. So I guess you know what that means: No more C-SPAN."
"One other thing you might not know about Kevin – he’s been a key confidante to dozens of Washington players. It was Kevin who told Howard Dean: 'The sound system isn’t working. Talk louder!' It was Kevin who asked [former FEMA chief] Michael Brown, 'What’s the hurry?'”
Fritts ended on a serious note, citing Martin and the FCC's efforts to help broadcasters and Gulf Coast residents during the recent hurricanes, saying the FCC had cut through red tape and teamed with broadcasters to help get vital information to the region.
"In their hour of need," said Fritts, "the folks living along the Gulf Coast were lucky to have Kevin Martin as FCC Chairman. I salute Kevin for his service to America, and I am honored to be his friend."
An equal-opportunity roaster, Cicconi mixed plenty of jokes at his company's expense with those at Martin's. AT&T is working to overcome the "behemoth" tag. "We're working on our image," he said. "The company has a new logo. Instead of the big bold AT&T letters, you now have the small, humble, friendly letters.
"Instead of the big globe which we all know lovingly as the 'death star,' we now have the 'happy face' star. We're replacing the old Ma Bell with a Soccer Ma Bell.
"And even my job title has changed. I used to be executive vice president for imperial ... uh, external affairs. Now I am executive vice president for cooperation and partnering and happy stuff."
Martin took the the blows with good grace and deadpanned enough self-deprecating humor to surprise some in the crowd: "I was certainly expecting a few barbs from Eddie. He no longer has to come lobby me. I thought Jim and Dick would hold back a little bit. Guess I was mistaken."
Martin, whose son was born two weeks ago, said that the "VOIP providers have taken to calling me Darth Vader. Thank goodness I come home every night to my loving wife and beautiful son ... Luke."
With a nod to his reputation for being slow to name staffers, he amended that, "I'm sorry, I don't want to get ahead of myself. Luke is currently our acting interim son."
He said that everybody had been wonderful since the baby was born, though perhaps some had "gone a little overboard. "Wiley, Rein & Fielding setting up a new department in childhood law," for example.
Disney sent a video, he said, which was "very nice." But "Comcast offering to set up our own personal family-friendly tier of programming" was, again, "a little overboard."
"But then I thought about it and I said, 'Hey, that's not such a bad idea [Martin is pushing for such tiers as a response to complaints about cable content]."
Martin wasn't beyond biting a hand that feeds him. "As you know, one major cable operator, Cablevision, does support me and does take me up on my suggestion to offer family-friendly tiers. The only problem is the familys they are offering are the Sopranos, the Osbournes and The Simpsons."
"There is nothing in life more moving and humbling than the birth of a child," said Cicconi of new papa Martin, "or as we in Washington refer to it: a lobbying opportunity."
Cicconi said the "new" AT&T didn't go along with that excess. "This is a different company. We sent a smaller, more traditional gift. I'm sure your son will enjoy the many new features of his Thinkpad, and the iPod. Don't worry, Mitch [Bainwol, head of the Recording Industry Association of America], we pirated music for the iPod, but it's all hip-hop, so who cares."
Cicconi said that Luke Martin had received 17 invitations to the dinner. "We set up a high chair at the AT&T table just in case."
Cicconi ended with a salute to Martin as the commission's Rocky Balboa "tackling the tough issues, winning some, maybe losing some, too, but always in the ring battling for what you think is right. All of us admire and respect you and appreciate what we know you will accomplish as chairman."
"I know that some chairmen don't like the press," Martin said during his turn at the mike, "but they have been more than fair to me," adding the caveat that "not everyone has been so kind."
For example, he said, "one reporter wrote that every decision I make is political. That one really bothered me. I mean, all 12 focus groups said that if we had a baby, that would insulate us from the criticism.
"Some reporters have written that I am some kind of autocratic ruler. One reporter even claimed that not one piece of paper gets out of the commission without my personal approval. That's just not true There have been five pieces of paper, and all the people responsible have been dealt with."
Martin said that former FCC chairmen had all been offering me "wonderful insights" into "the hardest part of the job.
"[Former Democratic Chairman] Reed Hundt told me it was dealing with a Republican Congress. Now, Reed's a brilliant guy, but I just don't see why that is such a problem."
"Bill Kennard told me it was refereeing the nasty and endless battles between SBC and AT&T. Bill's a great diplomat, but I think we took care of that one [the FCC recently approved their merger].
"Michael Powell asked if I was worried about the number of commissioners shrinking down to three. I said, 'Heck no, I'm going to try and get it down to just one.'"
With Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy's departure Friday--she was saluted at the dinner as well--the FCC is down to three, with Martin outnumbered by Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein 2-1 until at least sometime next week, when the Senate is holding hearings on Copps' re-nomination and Repbublican Deborah Tate to fill former Chairman Michael Powell's seat.
Taking a page from David Letterman, Martin closed with a list he said the staff had sent him of "the top seven reasons it's fun to work at the Martin FCC."
7. Agenda meetings. Where will they go? What will they do? And what time will they start?
6. FCC Carolers now sing the UNC Fight Song. (He is a North Carolina graduate.)
5. More time for Margaritas because there is no need to worry about returning reporters' phone calls (that got the biggest laugh from the audience).
4. Your old boss works for you and your old intern is bureau chief.
3. Plenty of time for golf cause there's no need to work on wireless issues.
2. Trips to Siberia are not limited to the international bureau.
1. The KGB-like atmosphere grows on you.