Somewhere in the space between Katy Perry’s perched cleavage and Tom Brokaw’s wagging finger lies the reason behind the White House Correspondents’ dinner. There must, we hope, be a reason.
Brokaw has become the nation’s voice of conscience on the event. Last year, motivated by the invitation extended to tabloid perennial Lindsay Lohan, he complained about it on NBC’s Meet the Press, then he returned last week for an exasperated interview with Politico in which he pleaded with event organizers and attendees to consider the perspective of an outsider — of “an interested citizen in Kansas City” — and tone it down a bit. To the America that lay beyond the Vienna stop on the D.C. Metro, he said, the annual gala appears decadent and grotesque, the tawdry bacchanal of a cavalier court. “We’re Versailles,” he said caustically. “The rest of you eat cake.” Sarah Palin, in her own way, agreed. “That #WHCD was pathetic,” she tweeted. “The rest of America is out there working our asses off while these DC assclowns throw themselves a #nerdprom.” And veteran CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted that it’s time to “reassess whether the annual lavish black-tie event is appropriate in this day and age,” while a former network news president described the dinner to me as “a mortifying high-water mark of journalistic narcissism” and “an embarrassing star fuck.”
A week earlier, a friend had sent me a surprise invitation to one of the dinner’s pre-parties. I found an old tuxedo of my father’s that hadn’t been worn since the early 1990s, had the pants hemmed, and headed for the capital. I convinced an old friend, Andrew, who lives in Washington but is entirely uninterested in the world of the White House press corps, to join me. On Saturday night, we walked into the lobby of the Washington Hilton, and where my skeptical companion had expected to find rows of pale-skinned bloggers, we instead found tabloid madness. “Katy! This way! Katy!!” we heard from a savage scrum of paparazzi. As flashbulb fireworks went off, we noted that the E! Network was also on hand (for the first time in the dinner’s history) to film live footage of celebs sashaying the red carpet, just a short walk from where Ronald Reagan took a bullet to the lung in 1981.
The pre-parties overflowed from every conference room, alcove, and atrium of the hotel. Invite-only parties were guarded by stern, clipboard-wielding young women in eveningwear, while some media companies opened their doors to all comers. The corridors swam with schools of media grandees, Hollywood elites, and cabinet secretaries. Steven Spielberg was omnipresent. Charlie Rose walked and talked past roped-off autograph seekers. Ribbon-bedecked military brass mingled with tycoons. “Ooooh! My God,” I heard a young woman moan in a stage whisper. “It’s Paul Rudd. I love him so much.” Christine O’Donnell, the failed senate candidate from Delaware who once assured America that she was not a witch, buzzed around on a giggly celebrity safari. Not-quite-famous network television actors chatted amiably with Newt and Callista about what, Ellis the Elephant only knows.
White House Correspondents’ Association president Ed Henry was quick to point out last week, in response to Brokaw, that the dinner continues to fund scholarships and to award journalists for work done in the public service. But even in the 1920s and 1930s, when the event was in its infancy, it was an “entertainment extravaganza,” as the WHCA’s website puts it. World War II toned things down some, though even in 1944, Bob Hope was flown in at the last minute on an Army plane from Mobile, Alabama. “The most complete turn-out of the Nation’s war leaders since Pearl Harbor ate un-rationed duck and traded off-the-record political wisecracks with the Capital’s press,” the AP reported. The years that followed saw performances by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1963, emcee Merv Griffin introduced a twenty-one-year-old Barbra Streisand, who, in a plunging scoop-neck dress that beat Katy Perry’s by half a century, boldly asked President John F. Kennedy for his autograph.
In his 1991 book, Power and the Glitter, Ron Brownstein chronicles the confluence between the entertainment industry and the American government. Brownstein told CSPAN that it didn’t take long for early studio executives like Louis Mayer to learn that “it pays to have friends in Washington.” The line of reciprocity can be traced through Sinatra and Kennedy, Warren Beatty and former Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, straight to last week’s collaboration between Spielberg and President Obama. Over the decades, the incentives for both sides have remained constant: Entertainers engaged in the business of make-believe see in politics the chance to engage with real issues. From Richard Gere on Tibet to George Clooney on Sudan, celebrity fame can mobilize an otherwise obscure campaign. As Chris Dodd, the former Connecticut senator and current president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told Politico last week, “The really good ones aren’t looking for photo ops; they are serious people.”
Politicians go calling in Southern California for reliable campaign contributions and cultural cachet. Hollywood grew into a community, Brownstein told CSPAN, with “an unusual concentration of people willing to fund politics around ideology,” rather than their parochial business interests alone. One unintended consequence of this is that a small group of wealthy people in Los Angeles enclaves have wielded immense power over the trajectory of American politics. Rather than visiting middle-class or immigrant communities, politicians end up spending disproportionate amounts of time “beseeching these people in Bel Air and Brentwood living these very comfortable lives,” said Brownstein, “to open their checkbooks.”
Cable news then brought journalists into the fold of fame. “TV made some of the Washington reporters celebrities,” the former network president told me. News organizations enabled the trend for reasons both economic and social. “Of course the Washington journalists relished being stars, both financially and professionally. They loved the lifestyle of those West Coast people.” The coziness of this arrangement is by now so ingrained that it was the running gag of one of the dinner’s high-production video sketches, a spoof of the political drama House of Cards, which had Kevin Spacey as the Machiavellian Frank Underwood, horse-trading over the dinner’s seating arrangements.
In America, H. L. Mencken wrote, “the worst of all aristocracies is nurtured at the breast of the greatest of all democracies.” Ultimately, the only person who effectively addressed critics of the event was Obama himself. His speech reflected his comic abilities, but he ended on a somber note, touching on the victims of the recent explosions in Boston and Texas and summing up the challenges and civic duties of those gathered. First responders and regular Americans don’t do their jobs to be honored or celebrated at black-tie dinners, he said. “These men and women should inspire all of us, in this room, to live up to those same standards, to be worthy of their trust.”
I didn’t have a ticket to the dinner itself, so I watched it the following night on CSPAN with some friends. We laughed at the speeches and talked about the circus. There had been a moment at the Hilton, just as the pre-parties let out and the insiders lined up for the dinner, when there was a terrible and sudden crush of humanity. The temperature rose to distinctly sweaty heights in the low-ceilinged corridors, and a great democratization of discomfort took hold. The Gingriches walked patiently in front of Tina Brown, who walked next to a military man in full formal dress. Upstairs, the stampede was no better — my friend Adam told me later that a friendly Jon Huntsman had lightly grabbed his bicep as they bumped into one another. With claustrophobia fully upon me downstairs, I darted toward a notch of daylight in a narrow path along the wall. As I worked my way out, I passed a grimacing Chris Matthews, who stood motionless in a line headed in the other direction, deeper into the tangle. “What’s this line all about?” he said to a young man standing next to him. When he received no ready reply, he said again, louder, as if to the heavens, or to me, since I was the only other person in his personal space, “What’s this line all about?” Happy to be headed in the other direction, I leaned toward his familiar face and said, “Metal detectors.” He stared at me and deepened his frown. “Metal detectors,” I said, and made for the door.