Party on, Washington.
In the end, it turned out that to have a good time, journalists didn’t need all the menu extras that had come to define the glammed-up White House correspondents’ dinner: the sexy Hollywood celebrities, the administration sources to schmooze or even a comedian to yuk it up.
“Who needs 'em?” asked Jeff Ballou, an Al Jazeera editor, as he strode into the phalanx of pre-dinner cocktail soirees at the Washington Hilton on Saturday. “This should be about us.”
While President Trump might have made a point of skipping the dinner (again) — and ordered members of his administration to do likewise — the weekend wasn’t entirely devoid of this administration’s fans. There were plenty of recognizable stars of the Trump Cinematic Universe at the weekend-long festivities surrounding the dinner (let’s call it the WHCD loophole, shall we?).
We first bumped into senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Friday night in the posh living room of David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media.
Wait, we asked, was she violating her boss’s ban on WHCD fun?
“You would call it a ban, wouldn’t you?” she asked, reflexively slipping into media-critic mode. The president didn’t mean that no one who works for him could attend parties, she explained, just not the dinner. “Besides, they’re our neighbors!” she said of the Bradleys, who live in embassy-heavy Observatory Circle. “I couldn’t be rude!”
So Conway was free to mix it up with Adrienne Arsht and other A-listers under the lovely tent in her neighbor’s backyard. The next day, she appeared again at the A-list pre-party known as the Garden Brunch wearing a butterfly-printed romper, breezing past Jay Leno to air-kiss Greta Van Susteren.
Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer popped up at nearly every notable affair over the weekend like a Where’s Waldo of the Washington social set. There he was doing a live shot for “Extra” at United Talent Agency’s Friday night pre-party at Fiola Mare in Georgetown. Another Spicer sighting at the receptions at the Hilton before the dinner. Again at Capitol File magazine’s after-party at the Dupont Circle Hotel where we overheard one guest refer to the former “Saturday Night Live” target thusly: “The short angry guy’s here. What’s his name?”
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — he of the “plane-landing” that was consuming the weekend news cycles — was spotted at the Garden Brunch, too, wearing the Washington standard-issue weekend wear of khakis and a blue blazer, chatting with Leno, one of the few celebs to turn up at the parties surrounding the dinner. Oh, and wait, there was Rudy Giuliani, posing for pictures while former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett chatted across the room with Hilary Rosen. Former Maryland congressman John Delaney (D), who is running for president, gave an earnest interview to cameras parked outside as guests grazed on a poke bar and enough mini-quiches to make one feel like Alice in Wonderland at a tea party.
Such were the kind of VIP sightings available during the weekend, which traditionally has featured plenty of Hollywood-meets-Washington mash-ups. But with Trump in office, the imported celebrities have stayed away, leaving Washington wonks to do what Washington wonks are wont to do. Here’s an unfamiliar sight at the annual dinner: actual business cards. After three years of decline (or resurgence, depending on whom you ask) the dinner may have once and for all returned to its good old rubber chicken networking roots. Handing out contact information replaced ubiquitous smartphones for selfie-taking, shoptalk replaced “who is that?” whispers and the place was still packed despite the A-list exodus.
“I’ve been coming to this dinner for years, and this is the most important year,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, as she broke from a power gaggle with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and British Ambassador Kim Darroch at the pre-dinner party on Saturday hosted by CBS News and Politico under tents at the Hilton terrace.
Hogan was one of only a handful of elected pols to make the scene — wait, there’s House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer! (We did mention the celebrity sightings were wonky, right?)
“It’s the same amount of parties but with just less interesting people,” noted one correspondents’ dinner veteran during the Washington Diplomat and Qatari ambassador’s pre-party at the United States Institute of Peace on Friday night. The most famous faces there? Karen Huger and Sonja Morgan of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise.
Another partygoer who’d just managed to squeeze through the packed crowd at UTA’s Friday party echoed that same sentiment: “It’s this ridiculous,” he said, “and it’s just us.” Just us was the theme of the entire weekend, it seemed — a Washington thing that will never ever die despite the alarmist headlines and endless complaints about the lack of what one dinner guest called “sizzle.”
The after-parties had a clubhouse feel, too. Over at the Italian Embassy, where the NBC/MSNBC shindig took place, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and MSNBC host Ali Velshi posed for a picture together — which got photo-bombed by Spicer, natch. Blitzer, who has been to so many dinners he can’t keep count, told us earlier that night that he hopes the weekend marches on. “It’s for a good cause,” he said of the various parties, before adding diplomatically that he loved “them all” the same.
Another draw no one can resist? Free booze.
Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union and husband of Trump aide Mercedes Schlapp — the same guy who huffed out of the dinner last year complaining about the comedian, Michelle Wolf — nursed a martini by the bar.
So what if the celebrities are gone? So what if historian Ron Chernow, who did an affable job as the night’s entertainment — even if several dinner guests skipped out before his speech — replaced the comedian? So what if the president doesn’t want to sit through the three-hour dinner? It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“House of Cards” star Michael Kelly, who co-hosted the Capitol File after-party and was one of the few famous faces over the weekend, said he was happy to skip this year’s dinner for “obvious reasons,” but will be just as happy to return to the Hilton ballroom in the future.
“I look at this like the ebb and flow,” he said. “I’m a political nerd. I love this town. So I’ll be back.”
And the dinner will be there waiting.