When Washington’s signature social event kicks off this weekend, Wolf Blitzer will not be dining with Ashton Kutcher.
Oscar winners will not clink cocktails along moonlit embassy balustrades. Distinguished political analysts will not tumble out of receptions with shoulder-straining gift bags stuffed with luxury cosmetics and gourmet organic cookies. The stars of “Saturday Night Live” will not lean in for selfies with Chuck Schumer.
A professional comedian will entertain, but his name might not ring a bell. And — perhaps you’ve heard? — for the first time in 36 years, the president of the United States will not attend.
After more than a decade of celebrity glitz and lavishly underwritten partying, Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is shaping up to be a slimmed-down, more sober, slightly dowdier affair. It’s possible the event will never again be quite as epic.
And for some longtime attendees — that’s just fine. Maybe even a relief.
“This is clearly going to be different,” said Susan Page, White House bureau chief for USA Today. “Last year, I was at a table with Kendall Jenner, and this year I’m at a table with Madeleine Albright.”
Both of whom, she hastened to add, are delightful guests. The lack of celebrity frisson isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she said. “In a way it refocuses the dinner . . . on the role we want the press to play in a democracy.”
President Trump’s decision not to attend — announced in an abrupt tweet two months ago and viewed as another salvo in his battle with Washington journalists — threw uncertainty into the event. Over several decades, the tradition of a comic speech by the commander in chief, gently mocking the press and himself, had boosted the black-tie dinner into an A-list attraction.
Yet Trump’s absence also seems to have magically relieved some of the tensions that had been building around the dinner for years — the ethical discomfort, for some attendees, in the spectacle of journalists yukking it up with the government officials they cover.
Not to mention the unseemliness of journalists sharing red carpets with the stars of “Scandal” or “Duck Dynasty,” or feasting on corporate-funded cocktail buffets at an ever-growing array of unaffiliated parties that piggybacked on the WHCA buzz in recent years — two trends that have been dramatically halted with the first dinner of the Trump era.
“There’s always this angst and acrimony,” said Julie Mason, a host of a political radio show for Sirius/XM and a former WHCA board member, “over what is basically a Rotary Club dinner.” (Granted, one that is aired live on C-SPAN.)
Said Juleanna Glover, a corporate consultant and Bush White House veteran who has skipped the festivities in recent years, “If it turned into a boring journalism dinner, I would be delighted to be there.”
In 2004, John Fox Sullivan had a prime seat at the dinner. Then the publisher of National Journal, he was on the dais, overlooking some 3,000 guests in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton. So he was just a couple feet away when President George W. Bush strolled onstage to “Hail to the Chief” to join his fellow guests at the head table, including Jay Leno, the entertainer for the night.
Walking behind the table where the guests where standing for him, Bush “takes his right hand and gooses Leno,” Sullivan recalled. Leno jumped. “It happened so fast, very few people saw it,” he said. Bush took his seat with a huge grin on his face — and Sullivan’s been dining out on the story ever since.
“It’s one of the top 10 moments of my career in Washington,” he said.
The celebrification of what was once a chummy industry dinner is now part of Washington legend. For decades, it was an occasion for journalists to schmooze their official sources in government. “Having the secretary of agriculture at your table was considered a hot date,” said Page.
But in 1987, Baltimore Sun correspondent Michael Kelly started a craze when he invited an unconventional newsmaker — Fawn Hall, the gorgeous administrative assistant on the fringe of the Iran-contra scandal. After that, everyone, it seemed, wanted a guest who would get the other reporters talking.
It was a dynamic that fed upon itself — a critical mass of celebrities making it a safe place for other celebrities, which made the dinner a tantalizing ticket that publishers could use to court big-dollar advertisers — giving them all the more reason to gussy up their tables with ever more celebrities. In the Obama years, it became particularly stylish to invite virtually the entire casts of TV shows popular with the chattering classes — “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” “Modern Family.”
But ultimately, said Sullivan, the draw of the dinner remained the chance to breathe the same air as the president, regardless of who it was. “People want to be inside the locker room,” he said.
And this year? No president.
Trump’s initial tweet turning down the invitation sounded blithe (“Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!”). But the animosity soon became clear: The White House announced that none of its staffers would attend, in “solidarity” with the president; press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump would consider future invitations only “if things go better” for him with reporters.
Last week, the president announced his alternate plans for Saturday night — a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., to mark his first 100 days, which will probably force a few correspondents to skip the dinner. Jeff Mason, the Reuters reporter who is president of the White House Correspondents’ Association this year, declined to comment on the timing of the event. But many view it as a bit of counterprogramming intended to draw a sharp contrast to the festivities at the Washington Hilton. During his campaign rallies, Trump frequently attacked the media to send a message to his base “that I’m with you, not with them,” said Major Garrett, chief White House correspondent for CBS News.
“At a straight, cold, political level,” Garrett added, the timing of the rally “is very shrewd for him.”
Curiously, the president engineered no such blockade on another elite Washington media gathering with a heavily overlapping guest list: He sent Vice President Pence in his place to the Gridiron Club dinner in early March, along with several other top White House staffers.
The Gridiron is not televised, though. And Trump had a fraught relationship with the WHCA dinner going back to 2011, when he was the highly controversial guest of Lally Weymouth, mother of then-Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.
At the time, the real estate mogul and reality-TV star had been hinting at a political run and championing the bogus conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya. Seated in the center of an unusually starry room (Sean Penn, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper, Michael Stipe), he was the center of its gawking attention as both Obama and the evening’s professional comedian, Seth Meyers, brutally roasted him.
With that history — and Trump’s increasingly personal attacks on the media throughout his campaign and into his term as president — many regulars at the dinner were quietly uneasy about the prospect of him returning as the most exalted guest on the dais.
Even before Trump sent his regrets, the glossy out-of-town publications that had lured some of the most sensational guests and thrown some of the most lavish parties in previous years — the New Yorker, People, Vanity Fair — indicated that they would not return this year. The WHCA, which usually announces the brand-name comic hired to entertain several months in advance — previous talent included Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert — didn’t line one up until two weeks ago, a 31-year-old “Daily Show” supporting player named Hasan Minhaj.
In a switch-up of the usual format, Minhaj will be getting some backup from two bigger names, investigative superstars Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who are expected to deliver remarks heavier on fourth-estate ideals than wisecracks.
And the celebrities? Media bosses once giddily leaked the names of the rock stars, Olympians or supermodels they planned to host at the dinner. This year: mostly silence and discretion. But it is becoming clear that Saturday’s dinner will largely be a celebrity-free zone.
Hollywood folks — who tend to despise Trump — are not rushing to attend, and media organizations seem less inclined to invite them anyway. The Creative Coalition, an advocacy group for arts funding, will bring several actors to town for its annual Friday night dinner — but only one or two are expected to attend the WHCA dinner as well.
The bigger draw for stars in town that night will likely be a party at the W Hotel to celebrate the taping earlier Saturday of a TBS comedy special by current-affairs comedian Samantha Bee — pointedly titled “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
Instead, look for the WHCA dinner tables to fill with business and tech luminaries, TV network chiefs, policy gurus — and perhaps some more VIP Washingtonians sitting alongside the journalists.
“We are going to load up on lawmakers and ambassadors,” said Garrett, who is cheering the celebrity retreat. “It’s been part of the dinner that has grown completely out of control” — with no encouragement, he said, from rank-and-file White House reporters.
At its heart, he maintained, the dinner itself is a noble tradition, “not a place where we bow down before the president,” he said, but rather a one-night “cease-fire.” And a useful one at that.
“It’s a place for working journalists to do a bit of work,” meeting sources, making new contacts, he said.
The upshot, noted Tammy Haddad, a media consultant who co-hosts an annual brunch on the morning of the dinner, is that “there are going to be more reporters per square foot than ever before.”
And — well, what’s wrong with that?
For all the diminished buzz, the dinner is still sold out, Jeff Mason said. The WHCA was able to dip deeper into its waiting list, offering seats to associate members who’d previously been shut out, and extra seats and tables for media organizations that had long vied for them.
“That’s an issue we’ve had to deal with, where people who cover the White House didn’t always get invited to the dinner,” he said. “This year, I haven’t heard of that being a problem.”
The glitz surrounding the dinner had made it hard for some to perceive the association’s mission of improving press access throughout the executive branch. The dinner “is very important to us, our only fundraiser,” he said, “but is just one night.”
“This is a turning-point year, but the change may be for the best,” said Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. She’s grateful to see “less emphasis on the corporate, non-journalistic” events that have sprung up around the event.
And if the dinner itself is somewhat different, she said — “well, what isn’t different this year?”
Staff writers Paul Farhi, Roxanne Roberts and Emily Heil contributed to this report.