So it went across a swath of Washington on Friday evening, as a glittering array of visiting celebrities mingled incongruously with a top flight of media players and political heavyweights at a series of parties toasting this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Bryan Cranston, formerly of “Breaking Bad,” laughed uproariously at something CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield said at the Google/HBO party at the Renwick Gallery. MSNBC’s Tamron Hall held court at the Hill newspaper’s party at the Canadian embassy, alongside the likes of a Real Housewife, Nene Leakes, and a make-believe White House aide, “House of Cards” actor Michael Kelly. And at the New Yorker’s party on the rooftop of the W Hotel, young fans clustered around Sting, trying to pretend they weren’t obviously snapping close-range photos of him.
But it’s a fact that, no matter how elite the party you’ve managed to get into, there is always a much better one, beyond another velvet rope you can never pass. This year, party-hosting media outlets across town found themselves all upstaged by none other than the White House, which picked the same evening to host its own party in honor of International Jazz Day.
All the biggest stars were there, it seemed: Morgan Freeman, acting as emcee; Aretha Franklin and Herbie Hancock, who performed; Susan Rice; Madeleine Albright; Wolf Blitzer; Eric Holder; and Kerry Washington and some of the other top-listed cast of “Scandal.” Sting, it turned out, was primarily in town for this event; at the New Yorker party he confessed he would soon fly out of Washington well ahead of the correspondents’ dinner.
President Obama told his 550 guests, in a temporary concert hall set up on the South Lawn, that jazz was important to him because it was something he shared with his father, during their brief time together in 1971. “One of the things he did was take me to my first jazz concert, to see Dave Brubeck. . . The world that concert opened up for a 10-year-old boy was spectacular.”
And noting that Dizzy Gillespie actually ran for president in 1964, Obama vowed to do right by the late jazz trumpeter that night: “We are going to turn this place into the Blues House.” Get it? Instead of White House?
The president’s little shindig may have accounted for the sense, elsewhere, that the night was just a little less starry than in past years. At Capitol File Magazine’s party at the British ambassador’s residence, the highest-ranking Hollywood ambassador was Bellamy Young, the actress who plays “Scandal’s” scheming first lady — the cover star of this month’s issue of the magazine. Other luminaries included businesswoman Sheila Johnson, Cosmopolitan editor in chief Joanna Coles and makeup artist Carl Ray — so terribly booked this weekend, he confided, with gigs painting the faces of Michelle Obama and various fly-in celebs.
The unseasonably cool weather didn’t help. At Washington Life’s sunset cocktail reception on a rooftop overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, guests shivered under the gray sky and covered their skimpy cocktail dresses with winter coats. The New Yorker’s rooftop affair was at least equipped with outdoor heaters, allowing guests to admire the picture-postcard views of Washington landmarks, not to mention the other party just below them at the White House.
“It’s like human Jenga here,” complained one New Yorker guest, snaking through a crowd packed with D.C./NYC intelligentsia — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sidney Blumenthal, Nina Totenberg, Charlie Rose and Jeffrey Toobin, not to mention “Billions” star Damian Lewis, surrounded by a circle of female fans, and Larry Wilmore, the comic entertainer for whom Obama will do an opening act at Saturday’s dinner.
Small talk seemed desperately confined to one topic: “Every conversation in the last 24 hours has been about Trump,” grumbled one media executive.
At a party hosted by The Washington Post in conjunction with Variety and the Screen Actors Guild, SAG lobbyist Todd Flournoy pulled Allison Janney — yes, formerly of “The West Wing” — and Jeff Goldblum — yes, formerly of everything — together for a jolly grip-and-grin photo, and we desperately thumbed at our phones to see if the lanky, eagle-eyed actors had ever worked together before. (No? Well, they should!) The DJ pumped out some floor-filling tunes by Prince and Rick Springfield, and about four people danced for a couple minutes. Which is pretty good, actually, for 8 p.m. in a K Street office building.
David Corn, an intrepid investigative reporter for Mother Jones and an accomplished party-hopper, assessed the room with curiosity. “There are a lot of people at these parties who — they’re not really media or politics, are they?” He had some theories: Either they were part of Washington’s permanent socialite class, tapped as attractive ringers to decorate each room; or perhaps they were coming from New York.
Either one of these could have been the case during the first wave of parties Thursday night. The Bytes & Bylines party, hosted by an alliance of tech types at the residence of Spanish Ambassador H.E. Ramon Gil-Casares, was filled with suspiciously good-looking folks whose business cards spoke of jobs in “innovation” and who seemed unusually adept at mastering the Uber-powered logistics for getting from the remote Foxhall location to the next party on time — a very youthful gathering at the W hosted by Rock the Vote, the right-leaning viral humor site Independent Journal Review and the dating app Tinder, which is both a sentence we couldn’t imagine uttering five years ago and a place where no one seemed to recognize Neve Campbell. (You guys, “Party of Five”? Good Lord, how young are you anyway?)
Well, who needs celebrities anyway? At the People/Time party on Friday, Fox News star Greta Van Susteren and her lawyer husband, John Coale, shocked the room by walking in … by themselves. In past years, the power couple could be counted on to bring the weekend’s most sensational, shocking, scrutinized guests — Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Sarah Palin. This year they took a pass. “It’s just too exhausting,” Coale told us.
Meanwhile, look at all these famous-for-Washington people!: Cecile Richards, Hilary Rosen, Josh Holmes, Dana Bash, Stephanie Cutter, Margaret Carlson. “I see you a lot on TV now!” a tall young man called out to Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda. Two steps behind him, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and his wife watched fellow guests posing on the night’s big gimmick, a “Glamcam360” that rotated around them, taking a video under a shower of confetti.
“They’ll email the video to you,” a woman waiting in line urged them. “You should try it!”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the reigning DNC chair, made chitchat in the line to the bar with RNC spokesman Sean Spicer. “You were fun to wake up to!” she said brightly, referring to one of his feisty cable-news spots.
That’s exactly the kind of bipartisan spirit it would take to make it through the 60-hour slog of this demanding party weekend. Even at one of the most exclusive fetes of the night, a late-night after party hosted by Funny Or Die at Fiola Mare, where MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Rosario Dawson noshed on calamari and shrimp, a merciless brigade of clipboard girls kept guests waiting in the cold. And in that line were both the “House of Cards” actor Kelly and his real-life counterpart, Jarrett. When everyone’s a VIP, no one has it easy.
Helena Andrews-Dyer, Emily Heil, Roxanne Roberts, Robin Givhan, Maura Judkis, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Veronica Toney contributed to this report.