‘Why is she famous?’ A letter from the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Kim Kardashian arrives. (Glynnis MacNicol)
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WASHINGTON, D.C.—"I already snapped a picture of Kim Kardashian, so basically the night is over."

So declared one well-regarded Washington journalist at the start of the annual round of cocktail parties that preceded the White House Correspondents' Dinner Saturday night at the Washington Hilton.

If the opportunity to stumble over Hollywood celebrities were all the Washington political press, used to watching a very different kind of celebrity, were after—and this appeared to be the case through much of the weekend—there were plenty to be had on the ground floor of the Hilton on Saturday night. Sightings included but were not limited to: Kim Kardashian, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Judd Apatow, Elle McPherson, Daniel Day Lewis, Rebecca Miller, Dakota Fanning, Woody Harrelson, Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, Martin Short, Kate Upton, Sofia Vergara and (a divine) Diane Keaton. Also, the guy from "Modern Family."

Washington has a long, storied, and (thanks in part to Vanity Fair) extensively documented relationship with Hollywood. But what was on display this weekend was Washington's relatively newfound appropriation of celebrity and the journalism that documents the minutiae of its power players' lives and careers.

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Late in the evening Saturday the hashtag #celebritypettingzoo began appearing on Twitter, summing up nicely the combination of fake contempt and real awe Washington displays toward Hollywood.

Newt Gingrich, who knows a thing or two about zoos, appeared nonplussed, caught in a moment of primping his carefully coiffed hair (Callista’s needed no such readjustment!) for an imminent face-to-face with Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson—who had just been ushered into the Washington Post cocktail party by a gleeful Piers Morgan. Afterward, asked about the extravagance of the weekend, Gingrich barked his answer: "I know nothing about that."

Shortly afterward a glittering Hawn could be heard through the crush of camera-snaps chanting "Newt! Newt! Newt!"

Out in the hallway Daniel Day-Lewis could be spotted arm in arm with wife Rebecca Miller chatting with Dakota Fanning, while Eva Longoria blazed by.

Not that long ago (for our purposes let’s define this time as pre-Obama) a person interested in attending the WHCD needed only to be armed with an appropriate outfit or two and the address of Tammy Haddad’s brunch. 

But the Correspondents' Dinner is big business these days. And much like the West Coast spectacle of celebrity it strives to ingratiate itself with, the velvet-rope barriers for entry have been raised. Or lowered, depending on where Kim Kardashian factors into your own personal Power Rankings. (The answer this weekend, by the way, was: high enough to merit mention in Obama’s aggressively funny dinner speech, along with Mitt Romney and Arianna Huffington.)

This year, however, a person exiting a car at the gates at Haddad’s charity brunch (widely considered by WHCD devotees to be the most important event of the weekend, dinner included), which had formerly been held in a backyard but this year was located at the otherwise empty Halcyon House, was quickly set upon by suit-clad security men toting iPad-based check-in lists.

"Empirically crazier," Jake Tapper said, as he surveyed the multi-room layout of carefully catered food and drink that extended under a tent that took over half the backyard.

"A tent is not 'narrowing it down,'" he said.

The unusually low temperatures—one television executive was referring to the nearly empty backyard as Manitoba—meant the host had had to bring out heaters, around which many women in for the weekend from out of town promptly clustered.

There is a running game during the WHCD weekend which involves guessing the provenance of guests who don't have famous faces, based on their attire. This year the weather made it easy: The women from D.C. were the ones with the warm coats and sweaters. With the exception of Elle McPherson, who arrived in a fur collar.

The men, meanwhile, accustomed to sweating their way through the brunch in their suits, felt that the cold spell was payback for (hot) years past.

But Tapper, ABC's senior White House correspondent, wasn't entirely correct. It's in the nature of this event to become "empirically crazier" each year. In the present day it's almost impossible to imagine the event could be less "crazy." It has become what all these kinds of industry events (think of the Sundance film festival or New York Fashion Week) have inevitably become, since the media must churn out product whether there is any news or not. Begun as a charity benefit that allowed the Washington press corps a weekend Rumspringa and the opportunity to tell all the in-jokes about Washington which the once-Amish restrictions of "objectivity" and seriousness had made out-of-bounds, it exists now in a media and political universe where those constraints are all gone, which makes the weekend both more camera-ready and more insipid.

First-timer Sandra Fluke, attending with new fiance Adam Mutterperl, said that thus far the weekend had been along the lines of what she'd expected, but noted that her finals this coming week would be keeping her from too many late nights.

Fox News' White House reporter Ed Henry, who had brought his mother, agreed the event had grown in size but noted it was all for a good cause (this year the brunch raised money for CURE Epilepsy and The White Ribbon Alliance).

David Axelrod, one of the few people in Washington able to maintain eye contact in a room full of names straight out of Mike Allen’s Playbook, credited the growth of the event in part to "quasi news organizations."

Asked whether it didn't also have to do with Obama’s much-remarked charisma and media sophistication, Axelrod said, "If you can sell it, I'll go with that."

Mike Allen, at one point, busied himself, in his sweet way, fetching a drink for the hostess.

There was a rumor that Lindsay Lohan was in attendance, chaperoned through the weekend (according to the rumor) by Fox News host Greta Van Susteren. But only Politico’s Patrick Gavin, who was working the door with a camera crew when she blew past, seemed to know anything about it.

"As dysfunctional as D.C. is, there is always Lohan," an attendee said.

Some members of the press seemed apologetic about their attendance, as if they’d rather not be associated with the spectacle and were keeping off Twitter in the hopes of slipping through unnoticed by followers of such events.

The fact that, as attendees have noted in the past, these big events provide an opportunity for reporters to meet and mingle with potential sources they may not otherwise have access to sometimes gets lost in the criticism of what Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan called a "shameful display of whoredom."

The most depressing aspect of it might actually be watching the very same political figures and media types who spend their days cruelly lambasting and accusing one another in the press and elsewhere (with an eye to the viral cable-TV clip) happily gladhanding each other over Bloody Marys, and mimosas, and cupcakes, and lamb chops. It turns out actually they can and do get along just fine. The rest of it is just good for business. 

The heavy-gauge reporters affect looking down their noses.

I found myself waiting next to Joe Klein in the crush to get in the door, just as Kim Kardashian swanned by.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about complicated things," Klein said to me. "I just come here to have a drink."

On reality television everyone screams and hollers and accuses for the camera. But while Hollywood runs on the profits of the theatrics of conflict, Washington grinds to a halt.