WASHINGTON — They’ve seen it all, the grand old men of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
They’ve watched the reporters change their habits over the years from cigarettes and hard liquor to wine and fruity cocktails. They’ve seen the Cabinet officers and senators and generals. They’ve been there through the rush of Hollywood celebrities, some slipping in and out via the freight elevator, some nicer than others.
Mostly, they’ve seen the presidents up close, always the biggest celebrities of them all. This year, President Barack Obama plans to attend, as he has every year he’s been in office.
The only view of these people is their arms, reached upright over the throngs, carrying heavy trays of dinner. They’re the senior waiters at the Washington Hilton hotel, which this Saturday will again be the site of the White House correspondents’ dinner.
“It’s a wonderful dinner. It’s a beautiful dinner,” said Hernan Vasquez, 65, an immigrant from Chile who finds “we are face to face with the president.”
Vasquez is one of the three senior waiters who work one of the highest-profile dinners in the country. They sat down recently to talk about the dinner in an interview conducted in a room off the ballroom where the president arrives and a rug covers the presidential seal in the floor the rest of the time.
Vasquez worked his first correspondents’ dinner in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president. After working room service for seven years, he was a serving captain for five, and he’s been serving the head table for a quarter-century.
Francisco Peralta, 71, is a native of Nicaragua who arrived in 1963 and started waiting tables at the dinner in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson was president. He’s also served the president and head table for a quarter-century.
Greg Hinds, 59, is what the others jokingly call the rookie. After emigrating from Barbados in 1972, he worked for a cruise line for 11 years before arriving at the Hilton and the dinner in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was president. He’s worked the head table for 14 years.
All the men have favorite memories of the presidents and vice presidents they’ve served.
Peralta remembered standing next to George H.W. Bush when he felt something. “He put his hand in my pocket,” Peralta recalled. “I thought, what the heck? It was a White House tie clip. Someday I’ll give it to my grandchildren.”
Hinds still talks about Bill Clinton: “He came to the office and said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ . . . He went to the kitchen. I never saw another president do that.”
Vasquez remembered George W. Bush walking in and addressing him and others in Spanish. “ ‘These are my boys. Come on, let’s take a picture,’ ” he said Bush told them. “He was a friendly, friendly man.”
“They never treat us like servants,” said Vasquez.
One standout involved not a president but Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mindful of Cheney’s heart condition, his staff asked that he be served a vegetable plate. But when the staff served him at the head table, he noticed that he wasn’t getting the same meal as the other guests. Told that it was his staff’s request, Cheney said the staff should eat the vegetable plate. He had the same filet mignon and salmon as everyone else.
The correspondents’ dinner attracts celebrities beyond the president. There are the entertainers hired by the association as well as scores of guests from movies, television, sports and business.
The dinner staff is not immune to stargazing.
“The movie stars _ everyone talks about who is here. Everyone wants to see,” said Hinds.
Most of the stars walk through the front door, across the red carpet and into the camera phones of guests. Some, though, are mostly seen by the kitchen staff, arriving by way of the service elevator so they can duck in and out.
One of the favorites? Jay Leno, who was the dinner entertainer four times.
“He talked to everyone,” said Hinds, who met Leno after one of his rehearsals. “He came down off the stage. . . . He was so down-to-earth. He was a class act. Some were surprised to see someone of his stature taking time to talk to the staff.”
While the staffers look fondly on the presidents and stars who approach them, they also know the roles should not be reversed.
At one luncheon with first lady Michelle Obama, a staff member asked for an autograph. The staffer later was reprimanded.
“The guest is not our friend,” said Hines. “The guest is our guest.”
For all the glamour, the dinner is still work.
Planning and preparation start weeks in advance, particularly after the association selects its menu in the winter. Soon after that, the maitre d’ starts identifying the 200-plus servers who’ll work that evening, one per table and four or more for the head table.
Two weeks before the dinner, all the servers for the head table have to pass security checks. “They know I’m clean,” said Vasquez.
A week before, all the linen is ready, the plates polished.
The day of the dinner, streets start closing for security and already-limited parking becomes even more scarce. Hotel staff members park at the National Zoo and take shuttle buses to the Hilton. The servers arrive by 11 a.m.
The unique test is working through a ballroom where hundreds of people are crowding the aisles between and during courses, making their way to the front for a photo of the president, looking across the room for a celebrity, schmoozing between tables with members of Congress.
“It’s a challenge, because a lot of the guests never sit down,” said Hinds. “You really need to navigate properly going through the room. We tell the staff, ‘You are not going to drop that tray. Whatever you do, hold on to that tray.’ ”
How do they manage to hold one arm out to open a path through self-important Washingtonians loath to step aside and the other arm upright balancing a tray full of steaks?
Peralta held up his arm and flexed his bicep. “Look at that,” he said with a laugh.
For all the satisfaction, all the excitement, all the photos of themselves with presidents, it’s still a job. And for Vasquez and Peralta, this dinner will be their last. They’ll retire later this year.
“After 40 years,” said Vasquez, “it’s enough.”