What’s really wrong with the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
The driveway outside the late, great Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's onetime home was lined with paparazzi on Sunday afternoon; 20 of them, according to one guest at the party Washington media and political consultant Tammy Haddad was holding there this weekend.
That report came to us the next day from someone who's attended many of Haddad's annual spring parties over the last two decades, someone seemingly amazed at the increased celebrity quotient, and echoing a growing Washington sentiment that longed for the more restrained, hometown feel of the party in years past.
Haddad herself is a powerful figure, a former longtime MSNBC executive and political and media consultant who has been holding a fund-raising brunch the weekend of the White House Correspondents' Dinner for 20 years running now, but she is hardly a household name. Her party is a part of the fabric of the weekend, which has grown really to three days of Beltway bacchanalia surrounding, and eclipsing the importance of, the dinner itself.
Formerly a casual affair held in a backyard with no apparent security that attracted a list of actual Washington power brokers, the event has grown, as all these sorts of events have in the early 21st century, into a star-studded affair of little to no substance beyond the fact that it bundles donations from its celebrity-heavy crowd for charity.
It's always a crush, and this year, Haddad had reportedly cut the size of the list drastically and closed it off with a new finality that surprised many who had become used to getting themselves in one way or another.
“We should remember there should be some White House involved, there should be some correspondents involved,” declared Fox News White House correspondent and WHCA president Ed Henry, perhaps a touch defensively, at Haddad’s. But based on C-SPAN's extensive coverage the next night, this brunch was not much different.
Tom Brokaw has, of late, been one of the weekend's staunchest critics. This year he dated his boycott to last year's appearance by Lindsay Lohan, and it almost seemed like Brokaw's disapproval was just another part of the tradition, and like many of the traditions of the weekend, was starting to wear thin. There was a veritable circling of the wagons in D.C. to defend the event. If 2012’s wildly over-the-top WHCD inspired hashtags like #celebritypettingzoo, this year was all about hating on the haters. The media can never tolerate a storyline continuing for too long, and subsequently any complaints about the innate ridiculousness of weekend were tanked this year in favor ironic defenses: Of course it is ridiculous, why even bother stating the obvious; yawn! seemed to be the preferred 2013 stance.
“I would watch on C-SPAN, and as I watched on C-SPAN, I would try to put myself, kind of, if you will, in the person of an interested citizen in Kansas City, or in Little Rock, or in Spokane, Wash., saying, ‘That’s the Washington press corps?’" he told Politico. "I mean, there was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom than there is [at] what I’m seeing on C-SPAN there,” he said.
Henry had been telling reporters in the weeks leading up to the event that he was doing everything he could to make room for actual White House staff and actual journalists who cover the White House at the actual dinner. But who'd care, really? Would this event be a must-attend event for all of political Washington if nobody famous came? Wouldn't it just look like the regular Washington routine?
What's more, these events are fund-raisers, and tables are bought by deep-pocketed media operations, and then dispensed to their special guests. As Henry himself has explained, it's not really his place to dictate whom they invite; and this isn't going to be much of a fund-raiser if it's to be built on the salaries of journalists and low-level political staffs.
So while it was unclear how motivated they were, or how successful, there was talk among the establishment about imposing some discipline on the weekend-long affair this year.
It's understandable. If the celebrities had become totems, explaining to the world using recognizable faces that Washington and the people who cover it are important, one can see Washington feeling a bit like it's reached the point of diminishing returns, when the weekend becomes just one more public outing for already famous people in outfits to be photographed and commented upon by readers of celebrity blogs, in effect, running away with the goods.
One needed to look no further for proof of this than the ratcheted-up security that attended the crowded pre-dinner parties hosted by various media organizations in the downstairs conference rooms of the Hilton hotel. Whereas not that long ago anyone could walk downstairs and parade from room to room with the political jet-set (such as they are) this year attendees not only needed separate invites for each floor but were likely to encounter iPad-wielding hosts who had stationed themselves in front of a number of doors including Reuters and The Atlantic and were going so far as to check names against lists.
“This is a private party,” declared on pleasant but unmovable young woman outside the Atlantic media door. “I see you have an invite but you’ll have to check your name against the list on that table over there.” The “table over there” was buried in the crowd that had congregated, or perhaps stalled, outside the entrance but was making no apparent effort to enter.
The strategy, no doubt, was intended to keep the increasing number of non-dinner attendees from drinking away too much of the company’s event budget, but it proved a faulty one. (And seemingly did not extend to individuals – a dinner companion of Barbara Streisand’s was later overheard in the lobby recounting into his cell phone that the uber-star was furious she and husband James Brolin were not provided with bodymen to negotiate the melee). The concourse walkabout that precedes the more staid dinner is a shark tank with everyone obeying the same instinct to never stop swimming. No one who bothers to negotiate the swarm in heels or a tux does so to be trapped in one room when who knows who might be in the next one. As a result the hallways were extra crowded with all variety of bold-face names trying to catch a glimpse of usual celebrity glitz that appears here ever year. In this case Harvey Weinstein leading Nicole Kidman and Bradley Cooper by the metaphorical nose from the Daily Beast party where Tina Brown and Barry Diller were presiding to the Time Inc./CNN party next door where Patrick Stewart could be overheard taking drink orders for his group, Amy Poehler could be spotted clutching hands with a sleek looking Julia Louis Dreyfus, and Jake Tapper was seen quietly leaning against the wall behind Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis who were lined up for a photo op. Whereas last year Newt Gingrich, still enjoying his election year infamy, parted the waters, this year he was brushed aside by any number of media folks making their way to gladhand Jeff Zucker who appeared to be cheerily making the rounds.
But if this focus on exclusivity was meant to curtail the criticism that the weekend had become an overly gaudy display of the worst aspects of Washington’s love affair with celebrity, and bring the event back under control of the people who were throwing it, namely the D.C. power players, it seemed too little an effort too late.
It's a problem that has bedeviled organizers of industry events from the beginning, after all. The Slamdance Festival and SXSW are really properly viewed as answers to the Sundance Festival, begun with the best intentions but having turned into something unmanageable, really. And the results of that are damaging: At this years SXSW festival, for instance, one got the distinct feeling that wearing the official badges only showed you knew too little to know that the real power centers at the festival had long ago moved outside the convention center to private satellite conferences and parties.
But that, if anything, goes to show what's different about the WHCD weekend. At least the organizers of film festivals get to lament the fading of the actual commercial business the affair is supposed to accomplish. Similarly Diane von Furstenburg can fret that Fashion Week in New York is no longer actually a market that moves clothes from designers' sketchbooks to department-store racks; its an affair that has actually distorted the business, with the result that designers now have to make the clothes they display available pretty much immediately, vitiating the whole purpose of the affair.
But the White House Correspondents' Dinner never had a political or a business purpose writ large like that. It isn't a concrete moment in which the business between official Washington and the press corps gets done; it doesn't and never did set the mood or the coming cycle for the business of the Beltway. In fact, it's the opposite: An occasion for the people in all quarters of Washington, so often at cross-purposes, to ditch the pretense that they don't know each other and have nothing to gain from each other. It's Washington on carnival time, a release valve from the pressure of doing the work those watchers in Spokane that Brokaw is so worried about expect of the city's political and media elites. If this weekend were really about the serious business of Washington, D.C., it'd defeat the purpose.
There is in fact so little to weigh down the weekend with business that parties like Haddad's, or even brand-new entries like Buzzfeed's party (ambitiously scheduled to compete directly with the main dinner, because the only people worth inviting already knew the main event had become marginal) trade the center stage as the years progress. The Buzzfeed party had two levels of invites, General and V.I.P. The latter category were told this was "to ensure your speedy admission."
Why do any legwork to attend the dinner at all when the scene was happening off site? This seemed to be the thinking, and similar to this year’s political conventions where the action on the floor was entirely secondary to the peripheral satellite events, it worked. Even the normally snoozy Sunday morning brunches, once ruled by the McLaughlin brunch, but now a crowded calendar with both Reuters and Politico angling for space, seemed to offer some relief for native politicos power players looking for a quieter place to wheel and deal. Which is not to say there isn’t still an inside D.C. backroom to be admitted to. As more than a few longtime attendees noted to me in passing, the really real WHCD weekend scene appears to have moved from the Saturday cocktail hours and Sunday brunches to Friday night. The New Yorker party at the rooftop of the W Hotel was certainly not lacking in its share of celebrities – the likes of Sharon Stone, Jessica Pare, Michelle Dockery, Fred Armisen, Gerard Butler could all be spotted in various corners of the room deep in conversation, though unlike the following night they all appeared more interesting in talking to the intelligentsia than being seen – but they were all playing second fiddle to the likes of David Remnick (who held court till the late hours) and The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, currently the most sought-after man in Washington.
Sharon Stone’s appearance certainly turned a few heads, but the only question I heard repeated in loaded whispery tones throughout the night was, “Have you seen Leibo?”
Leibovich’s upcoming book The Town, about the inner workings of D.C. appears to have the entire city on edge; days before the brunch Politco launched an advance takedown of the author and the book which no one has seen and does not come out for another month, so jittery does its contents have some folks.
What is revealed there may indeed be the dark heart of Washington, the version of the town that Kevin Spacey, a prominent guest at this weekend's events, embodies in the character of Francis Underwood in the serial drama "House of Cards."
But the weekend itself reveals little about the town's culture, except that, once a year, the people who run this town like to get treated like the stars they court, and to drink champagne and Bloody Marys among them.
The dinner may not be worth watching or going to, but getting back on the train to New York Sunday night it was hard to imagine what harm it does, beyond offering an allegory, composed of famous faces, of the increasingly skewed priorities of official Washington.
Did you need the appearance of Lindsay Lohan to tell you that?