Frequently frisked

John McCaslin
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Posted: Feb 08, 2005 12:00 AM

Peter Greenberg, considered the nation's pre-eminent expert on travel-related issues as chief correspondent for the Travel Channel and travel editor for NBC's "Today," was dining in Washington the other night when Christopher Hinn, the Transportation Security Administration's deputy assistant administrator, approached the table to reintroduce himself.

"Why is it that whenever I see you I have the urge to remove my jacket and shoes?" Greenberg, a frequent flyer if there ever was one, asked the TSA official.

What Greenberg avoided telling Hinn is that one of the updated chapters of "The Travel Detective" - his recent best seller being re-released with a special section on security, safety and terrorism - is tentatively titled "Morons in Uniform."

FROM ALL SIDES

Expressing optimism over dinner in Washington about a peaceful future for the Middle East was Akel Biltaji, adviser to King Abdullah II of Jordan.

After all, the Egyptian-born Biltaji, a longtime proponent of spreading peace in the region through tourism, explained to this columnist that his family roots are Christian, Muslim and Jewish.

"I am a little bit of everything," he said, "so I understand it all."

CAN'T PARTY

The Marriott hotel chain found itself in the middle of an international incident after Iranian government officials posted in Washington booked a Bethesda Marriott conference center to celebrate yesterday's "Twenty-sixth anniversary of the glorious victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran."

"While you may not be aware of the political and economic ramifications of this event, it is certainly in the best interest of Marriott International Inc. and in the interest of the United States of America to deny [the Iranian government] the opportunity to hold this celebration at your conference center or at any other Marriott property," Iman Foroutan, executive director of the Iran of Tomorrow Movement, wrote to the company.

"For your information, February 6th has been formally declared as 'Death to America Day' in the Islamic Republic calendar," he said. "The date chosen to hold this celebration, February 6th, is closely associated with the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which Islamic fundamentalists, acting under the orders of the Iranian government, stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats hostage, holding them for 444 days."

Roger W. Conner, Marriott International's vice president of communications, tells the Beltway Beat that Marriott could not honor the reservation regardless because of former President Clinton's order declaring Iran "an extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the U.S.," making any trade with Iranian interests within U.S. borders illegal under U.S. law.

TIE YOUR BIBS

Fran Drescher, TV's "The Nanny" with the thick Queens accent, is coming to town Wednesday, but not to watch your children.

The comedic actress will be joining Joey "Pants" Pantoliano of "The Sopranos," former "Melrose Place" star Daphne Zuniga, and Tony Award winner Cady Huffman of "Frasier," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Mad About You," for the Congressional Quarterly/Creative Coalition "Pure Party" after the Washington Press Club Foundation's Congressional Dinner.

If this week's annual dinner is anything like the previous 60 affairs, lawmakers and members of the Fourth Estate will be adequately roasted and toasted "in a convivial atmosphere, while supporting a good cause." Proceeds from the dinner help fund the foundation's contributions to journalism education.

We won't forget Gwen Ifill's remark last year that when she was first asked to host the dinner "Joe Lieberman was still plausible [as a presidential candidate] ... and Howard Dean's bandwagon still had all its wheels."

Considering Lieberman recently was considered for secretary of something in the Bush administration, and Dean's bandwagon may roll in next week as head of the Democratic National Committee, finishing second ain't so bad.

ALONE IN THOUGHT

President Bush had just finished delivering his State of the Union address on Wednesday. A lone senator, in a blue suit, looking down at the floor, made a beeline out of the House chamber, somehow speeding through a ridiculously packed Statuary Hall.

Judging from the expression on his face, it's not where Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry hoped to be at 10:03 that historic night.

D.C. SIGHTINGS

That was the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, Washington diners saw waltz (with no reservation) recently into TenPenh, Washington's famed Southeast Asian restaurant fronting Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Given her charm, Fergie had no problem securing a table at the popular restaurant. And yes, the Weight Watchers spokesperson was in control, declining the amuse-bouche offered by chef Cliff Wharton and sticking to a less-caloric two-course meal.

If the duchess didn't attract enough TenPenh attention, singer Gloria Estefan showed up another late evening, taking her regular seat near the kitchen. The entertainer says she can't come to Washington without ordering her favorite dish, the restaurant's signature Chinese Smoked Lobster.

CHEF TED

Now that he has severed his vice-chairmanship ties with AOL and Time Warner, CNN founder Ted Turner is concentrating on grilling bison steaks.

Ted's Montana Grill, a meat-heavy restaurant chain Turner co-founded, just opened its doors in Alexandria - the media mogul's first location in the Washington area.

We're told Turner will be in the historic Potomac River port city in mid-March to greet diners and explain his gastronomical creations, not the least being "beer-can" chicken.

EVERYBODY LOSES

Given all the buzz around Social Security, rumors persist that members of Congress don't pay into the retirement system. Could this be true?

"The answer is no," informs the secretary of the Senate. "All members of Congress pay Social Security taxes in the same amounts as they would if they were employed in the private sector at the same salary level."

The Senate office says any confusion about Social Security "probably results from the fact that before 1984, senators and representatives did not participate in the Social Security program."

"Like all federal government employees at that time, members of Congress were covered by a pension plan, called the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), that did not require payment of Social Security taxes and did not provide Social Security benefits," the office explains.

In 1983, a law passed requiring all lawmakers to participate in the Social Security system as of Jan. 1, 1984, regardless of when they entered Congress.

SMEAR POLLS

Did you hear about the Democratic congressman who has to sleep with a night light because he's afraid of the dark? OK, we're joking, but that's the point Rep. Tom Petri, Wisconsin Republican, is trying to make about telephone "push polls."

"As many candidates for public office have learned through personal experience, these push polls are not legitimate telephone surveys but campaign devices designed to smear a candidate under the guise of a standard opinion poll," says the 14-term congressman.

How do push polls work?

"Imagine a voter, who has been identified as a supporter of candidate X, being asked in a survey if this support would continue if it was learned that candidate X was guilty of a terrible indiscretion or an outright crime," he says.

Or sleeping with a night light.

"It doesn't matter whether the allegations are true, because the idea that candidate X is somehow unfit for office has been planted successfully. This is a telephone push poll, or 'smear' poll." Petri's legislation, among other things, would require that a transcript of a pollster's questions be submitted to the Federal Election Commission.

CANDID CAJUN

Let us allow a single paragraph of a memo about the state of the Democratic Party, issued by Democratic strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, speak for itself:

"But on the key dimensions essential for the Democrats' re-emergence as a dominant national force, the party falls woefully short. As voters compare the parties, they see a Democratic Party without purpose and defining ideas; a party not at all strong (weak politically, without strong leaders and direction); not the go-to party on protecting the country; ambivalent on basic values, like right and wrong and responsibility; and only marginally ahead on advocacy for people, being on their side."