Star Power Lights Up Correspondents' Dinner

Celebrities at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton included Martha Stewart and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell. Also seen: Pamela Anderson and Ashlee Simpson.
Celebrities at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton included Martha Stewart and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell. Also seen: Pamela Anderson and Ashlee Simpson. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

The lasting image of President Bush at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner may be this: bouncing slightly off-beat with a gleeful smile on his face and a baton in his hand last night as he conducted "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band through a medley of patriotic songs.

Leave it to Bush to shake up an event that, after 93 years, has become as traditional, perhaps even formulaic, in its trappings as a recipe: Start with Hollywood glamour. Add heaping spoonfuls of bona fide Beltway celebrity, and stir. Top with the president of the United States. Place in an overly warm hotel ballroom for several hours, then serve.

Last night's festivities, held at the Washington Hilton, made clear that the see-and-be-seen ethos of the event has overtaken its original purpose: to give awards. Oh, there were still honors bestowed. Paul Shukovsky, Tracy Johnson and Daniel Lathrop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shared the Edgar A. Poe Award; Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press and CNN's Ed Henry won the Merriman Smith Award; and Alexis Simendinger of National Journal earned the Aldo Beckman Award.

Still, the awards were completely upstaged by a night full of only-in-Washington moments.

Was that the reigning Miss America (Kirsten Haglund) sitting a few tables away from Mark Penn, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's embattled campaign guru, who was just a few hundred feet away from rapper-producer Will.I.Am, who created the pro-Barack Obama YouTube hit video "Yes We Can," who stood not too far from Meghan McCain, Sen. John McCain's daughter?

Yes, yes, yes -- and yes.

Bush made note of this himself, surveying what he called "an interesting crowd," and pointing out "Pamela Anderson and Mitt Romney in one room. . . . Is that a sign of the apocalypse?"

A day full of gala events began with a garden brunch hosted by media maven Tammy Haddad, with Rosario Dawson, Tim Daly, Chris Matthews and Terence McAuliffe in attendance. Then followed various parties before the dinner.

The Newsweek party, inside the Hilton, was the hit of the night, with a dizzying parade of politicos and stars. The purpose was to gawk and mingle -- and gawk some more. It took fluency with Sunday morning news shows and familiarity with US Weekly to fully appreciate the scene. Actors Kal Penn, of the new "Harold and Kumar" movie, and Aaron Eckhart held court at one end of the room ("I've been campaigning for Obama," Penn said), while former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, deflected talk of the protracted Clinton-Obama primary fight.

Uber-celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, so very far away from California, turned heads, in part because he wasn't in a tuxedo. "I'm wearing Diesel," he said. Asked to comment on men's fashion in Washington, Hilton only glared. Oh, for a thought bubble at that moment.

Martha Stewart, a small camera in hand, toured the room. Why the camera? "I'll be blogging on the Martha blog," Stewart said. "You should check it out."

Out in the lobby, gawkers shrieked when Ashlee Simpson, wispy enough to dispel any pregnancy rumors, made an entrance.

As in years past, official Washington fretted over the night for weeks, consumed by details such as who is invited to which after-party (Bloomberg News held its oh-so-exclusive soiree at the Costa Rican Embassy, while writer Christopher Hitchens and former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers co-hosted Vanity Fair's very VIP event), which stars are attending, and whether Stephen Colbert would be headlining again.

As for the last, not a chance, not after his appearance two years ago, when Colbert, appearing as his conservative alter ego, drew nervous laughs as he chastised the audience. "I have nothing but contempt for those people," Colbert said of the media.

Instead, the more mild-mannered Craig Ferguson, of CBS's "The Late Late Show," was this night's main act, going on after Bush. The Scottish comedian, newly naturalized, was warmly received, particularly for his description of the "feud" between Fox News's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. "What I see is sexual tension," Ferguson quipped.

But it was Bush who received the night's loudest laughter, as he poked fun at Clinton and Obama's absence ("Senator Clinton couldn't get into the building because of sniper fire, and Senator Obama is at church"), and who received a rousing ovation as he and the Marine Band finished.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company