Yes, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is decadent and depraved. It is elitist and shallow, smug and insidery, a three-day orgy of corporate preening and celebrity suck-up so far removed from its earnest D.C. journalism roots as to be completely meaningless.
But you can’t fight it. You can’t change it. So, relax. Surrender. Just try to make the best of it, okay?
[UPDATE, 4/30: More day-after WHCD coverage, fashion, celebs, analysis, etc.]
Just like the tiny, middle-aged woman — one of the hundreds of beleaguered, invisible servers weighted down by filet and shrimp entrees in the Hilton ballroom on Saturday night — who just went for it, boldly putting down her tray to get a photo with actress Sofia Vergara, as Steven Spielberg waited to get past. Or Woody Harrelson, maintaining a Zen-like mellow as giddy fans swarmed him Friday night.
“Woody! Did you bring your bongos?” squealed one woman, encountering the actor at a W Hotel pre-party hosted by Google and the Hollywood Reporter.
“I think you’re confusing me with Matthew McConaughey,” Harrelson said gently. “It’s okay. We’re like brothers.”
It’s a challenge, we know, especially for some first-timers: A visibly unimpressed Charlize Theron barely lasted a half-hour on Friday in the VIP fish bowl of an Impact Arts and Film Fund/Funny or Die party in the loud, dark, humid, crowded basement of what used to be a Borders. Yet Kate Upton, the bodacious 19-year-old swimsuit model, managed to make some magic at the same party — shimmying, vamping, voguing and dancing as if there were nobody watching. (Although everyone was watching, and she knew it.)
Stipulated: What might be your way of having fun at one of these things might cause another person’s definition of torture. The price of Lindsay Lohan’s being the evening’s buzziest guest was the dark side of so many of these dinners: The mobs that pressed in around her dinner table, pointing and staring and analyzing from just a few feet away, like with a zoo animal. Her host, Greta Van Susteren, an experienced veteran of these dinners, seemed to be whispering some words of reassurance to the clearly unnerved starlet.
Other guests, thankfully, approached the VIPs with a bit more finesse. Diane Keaton, in her usual glam menswear, was cornered by a 40-something man who started peppering her with lines from her own “Annie Hall.” (Doing a respectable Woody Allen impression: “Talk to him. You speak shellfish!”) Reader, she loved it. Or at least pretended to. “You’re my witness!” the man said to a bystander. “She thought it was funny!”
And what were these stars doing here anyway? For better or worse, the once-clubby press dinner has become Washington’s own Super Bowl, a main event drawing ever more out-of-towners and bracketed by ever more parties. (Even NPR hosted a WHCD party for the first time this weekend — DJ’d by Beyoncé’s little sister Solange — paid for by two trustees who wanted a higher profile this weekend for public broadcasting.) A quick scan of Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s elegant Friday dinner turned up a lot of corporate execs with only loose connections to media or politics. Why? WHCD is less political than an inauguration; brainier, presumably, than the Oscars.
But after years of criticizing the WHCD party bloat, we learned this weekend why this thing survives: Secretly, a lot of people like it.
“It’s great,” said MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts, making his first appearance at the dinner. “I get to meet people I usually only talk to through satellite uplink.”
For all the Hollywood and Manhattan fly-ins, the dinner and the surrounding parties are still largely populated by worker bees of Washington. “I hate that we call it ‘nerd prom’,” said Erin McPike, a young writer for Real Clear Politics. “This is a huge deal for us! It is not nerdy!”
Or take it from a Beltway native now moving in show-biz circles. At a Saturday garden brunch in Georgetown hosted by a cadre of D.C. power players (Tammy Haddad, Mark Ein, Hilary Rosen, etc.), we caught up with Damian Kulash of the rock band OK Go, who told us to never mind the WHCD haters.
“I had five really interesting conversations last night,” he said. One involved the guys from TV’s “MythBusters” but also “one of the guys who authored the health-care bill. . . which meant there was really something to talk about. If you’re going to stay up until 3 a.m. being drunk, it’s good to have something of substance to talk about.”
Moving on to the after parties: With an unprecedented crush of A-listers recruited to this year’s dinner — Reese Witherspoon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kevin Spacey, etc. — the always elite party hosted by Bloomberg and Vanity Fair at the French ambassador’s residence was elevated to an almost Olympian level of exclusivity. Bo Derek and John Corbett huddled with Kelly Ripa, Kyle Mac-Lachlan with Barbara Walters, Daniel Radcliffe with Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Banks and her husband with Paul Rudd and his wife, and Goldie Hawn with Uggie, the dog from “The Artist.” Cater-waiters made up with guyliner (Why? “I have no idea,” confessed one. “Someone must have thought it was cool.”) circulated with haute-comfort food — one-bite club sandwiches, sugared bacon, mac and cheese. [Read also: George Clooney, making it look easy]
Out-of-town pols seemed to outnumber the Beltway breed in this rarefied air. Chris Christie, how’d you feel about all of Jimmy Kimmel’s fat jokes? “I have a great sense of humor,” the New Jersey governor said.
Were we imagining things. or were a lot of WHCD show-biz guests left off of Vanity Fair’s list? Certainly, a lot of them lingered longer than usual at MSNBC’s rival party at the Italian embassy, a more raucous affair with a mirrored dance floor (we see London, we see France. . . ), Rachel Maddow serving as bartender. (Her favorite drink to make? “A shot and a beer.”) Matthew Morrison of “Glee” shared a seat at the cigar bar with lithe brunette girlfriend Renee Puente [more on Morrison and Puente] who gave him a lingering kiss on the cheek. Dallas QB Tony Romo anchored a crew of the B-list alpha males (the guy from “Teen Wolf,” the one who played Dustin in “The Social Network”) doing shots, drinks in one hand, phones in the other.
The party went late; even after the bar closed, Dave Chappelle and J.R. Martinez were breaking it down on the dance floor.
At the Newseum after-party hosted by luxury lifestyle mag Capitol File, the guests were more D.C. scenester than wonk, the stars a little harder to place. (“He was on ‘Spin City,’ I think”. . . “The guy with the mohawk is famous, I think” . . .“Shane from ‘Walking Dead’ is here.”), and the champagne emptied by midnight. At 1:30, guests trickled out as a lone event staffer danced to Rihanna in a corner by the goodie bags.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.” Hey, no worries! As long as you’re having fun.
(Elements of this story, which appears in the print newspaper of Monday, April 30, also appeared in earlier Reliable Source blog posts, including: Stars brave crowds at WHCD pre-parties)
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From the 2011 WHCA dinner:
From the 2010 WHCA dinner:
From the 2009 WHCA dinner: