White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner feeds on Hollywood’s star power

Washington, New York and Hollywood held their annual schmoozefest Saturday night, and the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (#nerdprom on Twitter) showed new evidence of being completely overrun by red-carpet-posing actors, singers, sports superstars, models and other outsiders who couldn’t possibly name the ranking Democrat of the House Ways and Means Committee, much less its chairman.

Actor Michael Douglas, who has played a U.S. president and spent time with presidents, paused graciously during a chat with former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright to answer a tough question: What’s the difference between the real presidency and the Hollywood conception of the presidency? He mulled that for a second, then said, “We know how the script ends.”

The real president arrived at the Washington Hilton at 7:08 p.m., disappeared from public view and reappeared in the ballroom at 8:15, accompanied throughout by the first lady.

Obama’s remarks were, until the very end, a frothy mix of self-deprecation and digs at the media and his Republican adversaries. He got a big laugh early by showing a magazine cover of “Senior Leisure” with his photo on it: “I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be,” he said.

He noted that columnist Maureen Dowd had said he should be more like Douglas in the movie “The American President.” Turning to the actor in the audience, the president said: “Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it?”

On the changing media landscape: “I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m.”

On Marco Rubio and 2016: “The guy has not finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he’s ready to be president. Kids these days!”

He concluded by turning serious about the bombing in Boston, the explosion in Texas and flooding in the Midwest: “Even when the days seem darkest, we have seen humanity shine at its brightest.”

The correspondents’ dinner is officially a way to honor good journalism and hand out scholarships, but in recent years, it has drawn fire for being excessively focused on Hollywood celebrities and fostering too much coziness between journalists and the people they cover. News organizations buy tables at the dinner and invite advertisers, political leaders and, as the social garnish, celebrities. But some news organizations decline to attend. This year, veteran TV broadcaster Tom Brokaw said he wouldn’t come, saying the final straw had been the 2012 attendance of Lindsay Lohan.

This year, the celebrity contingent tended to be well-bred TV drama stars who almost blended in with the more photogenic of the media heavyweights. (And vice versa: “Is that Josh Hutcherson?” a K Street strategist asked, pointing to a young man with the well-groomed looks of a “Hunger Games” star. No, that was Chris Hughes, publisher of the New Republic.)

The Bloomberg table, front and center and closest to the president, had place settings for Barbra Streisand, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Kevin Spacey. At the next table, NBC had placed the aforementioned Douglas with newscaster Savannah Guthrie and Obama insider Valerie Jarrett.

The once-staid, now-glitzy annual dinner continues to evolve, and one development Saturday was the off-limits celebrity. For example, Psy, the Korean “Gangnam Style” pop sensation, stayed out of sight, protected by a handler, and would not pose for photographs.

President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner poked fun at Congress, Fox News, and the recent dedication of the George W. Bush Library. (The Washington Post)

In years past, stars would come once and never return, having discovered that the dinner wasn’t actually at the White House but rather in a big hotel ballroom, and that most of the people attending were ink-stained journalists, obscure Washington staffers and assorted grumpy, old politicians. But there is a critical mass of star power now, and so even the stars who aren’t currently in a Washington-themed movie or TV show will attend, just to be where the action is — and to hang out, apparently, in their own comfort zone with other stars.

The show-biz influence is so dominant now that Hollywood joined the big inside joke of the media-political crowd: At the start of the evening’s program onstage, the audience saw a comic video montage featuring Spacey in his “House of Cards” role as a Machiavellian congressman haggling with the likes of Jay Carney, Steny Hoyer, John McCain and several brand-name pols and journos over who gets the best seats and sexiest guests for the dinner.

A very partial list of the famous folks (non-media, non-politics) on hand included, in no particular order or ranking of star power: Nicole Kidman, Jon Hamm, Olivia Munn, Gerard Butler, Amy Poeh­ler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Katy Perry, Kate Mara, Robin Wright, Connie Britton, Tony Goldwyn, Kerry Washington, Fred Armisen, Claire Danes, Jon Bon Jovi, Kathleen Turner, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Steven Spielberg, Josh Radnor, Carrie Brownstein, Sharon Stone, Olivia Wilde, Michael Douglas, Michael J. Fox, Sofia Vergara, JC Chasez, Rebel Wilson, Gabby Douglas, Kevin McHale, Anna Wintour, Dan Stevens, Patrick Stewart, Justin Bartha, Tracy Morgan, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen, Sophia Bush, Jessica Pare, Patricia Arquette, MC Hammer and Bradley Cooper.

Before the dinner began, billionaires George Lucas and David Rubenstein spent a few minutes in an intense discussion. Sequester? Interest rates? Nope. Lucas was sharing the woes of building a museum in San Francisco.

Steven Spielberg, overheard: “This is my fourth year. I will say it will probably be my last. It’s getting really hectic.”

Josh Radnor, who stars on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” attended as a guest of the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit group that lobbies for funding for the arts in schools. Asked how the Washington social scene differs from that in Hollywood, Radnor said, “Actually, this is more socially intense.”

Melissa Bell, Mark Berman, Monica Hesse, Roxanne Roberts and Veronica Toney contributed to this report.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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