Batman vs. Superman. “Star Trek” vs. “Star Wars.” And now, in the pro-am zeitgeist tournament known as the White House Correspondents’ weekend, Donald Trump vs. Sarah Palin.
If you thought the party marathon was going to be all about the self-promoting developer/reality star/presidential wannabe, think again. A certain self-promoting ex-governor/reality star/presidential wannabe made a surprise appearance and almost stole the show.
Almost. There wasn’t a single Palin joke from President Obama or Seth Meyers during the dinner. She skipped the main event, appearing only at pre- and post-dinner hoopla, so The Donald commandeered all the attention — which, depending on their addictions to the spotlight, is either a bummer or a relief.
“Great!” Palin told us brightly. “There’s some deflection there. I’ll have to thank him!”
She stood in a ornate corner of the French Embassy at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair after-party, radiant in a navy suit, trademark glasses and hair down, engaging warmly with anyone who dared approach (She’s so much prettier and softer in person, they whispered). Husband Todd stood nearby; handsome, relaxed and chatty. It was Brand Palin at its best.
Earlier in the day, the Wasillans walked into the Georgetown mansion of Mark Ein to dazzle a brunch crowd of Washington insiders and visiting luminaries. Wearing a black, bell-sleeved summer dress, she posed with hosts Wendi Murdoch and Susan Axelrod, then carved a path through the crowded dining room to Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren, Palin’s media BFF.
“She’s just doing the brunch and the after-parties,” explained Van Susteren’s husband John Coale. Instead of attending Saturday night’s dinner, Palin spoke at a closed-to-the-press, $250-a-plate fundraiser for a Virginia antiabortion organization.
Which meant all the prime-time attention was focused on Trump, who jetted to Washington from the Las Vegas wedding of fellow casino mogul Steve Wynn. Trump and his third wife Melania were greeted with boos outside the Washington Hilton. But once inside The Washington Post’s pre-dinner reception, he was swarmed by flashbulbs. Trump chatted amiably with Cal Ripken Jr. and posed for photo after photo with young women in a shiny evening gowns.
Inside the ballroom, the tension that had been building all week over the birther controversy was transformed into laughter. The energy was electric when Obama and Meyers started lobbing jokes at Trump’s expense. He sat stonefaced through most of it — no wave to the speakers, no wink to the audience — but joined in a standing ovation for the president after his speech.
“I thought it was an interesting evening,” he told us. “I had a nice time.” And the jokes? “I didn’t think they were especially funny, but I’m sure some folks thought they were.” And then he was off — and not spotted for the rest of the night.
And so the debate began: Did the evening legitimize — or bury — Trump as serious presidential candidate?
“I think when you decide to be the leading celebrity in politics, you get the advantages and disadvantages,” said Newt Gingrich at the Vanity Fair bash.
“Oh, he was eating it up,” said Sharon Malone, wife of Attorney General Eric Holder. “If anyone is talking about The Donald, I’m sure he’s happy.”
The buzz at MSNBC’s party at the Italian Embassy was that Palin would head straight there after her speech. “Someone reminded her that Vanity Fair did the Levi Johnston story,” said one guest confidently.
But no — like all the other A-listers, Palin went first to the exclusive soiree hosted by Vanity Fair, that upscale arbiter of America’s ruling class. (Wait, we thought she doesn’t hang with elites?)
No hard feelings about the Levi spread, it appeared. None at all. She popped by MSNBC’s party eventually, where she was mobbed by fans asking for photos with her. Invariably, onlookers whispered to their friends: Isn’t she pretty? Isn’t she nice?
Palin’s animosity for Washington and the press had either dissipated or disappeared. The joke — at least on this night — was on someone else.
Some elements of this story, printed in the Style section of Monday, May 2, appeared in a Saturday posting on this blog.
2011 White House Correspondents' dinner