Remember way back in 2016, when the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner was synonymous with the obnoxious selfies jamming your social-media feeds? Yeah, the 2017 dinner (and its surrounding weekend), a century-old industry affair that somehow got glitzy and then in one election cycle lost nearly all its sheen, is definitely not that.
Yes, there are still plenty of parties happening this weekend, but instead of gift bags and humble brags, now you get a lecture.
Case in point: Voto Latino’s reliably so-so (but with Rosario Dawson! And maybe Wilmer Valderrama!) cocktail reception on Friday night, which jump-started the weekend’s still packed schedule of ancillary receptions, brunches, pre-receptions and after-parties.
“We’re going to kick off the proceedings with me talking,” Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks said at the event hosted by the Latino voter registration group. The event wasn’t at a trendy new restaurant-lounge-bar but at the WeWork building just across the street from the White House. A warning sign of things to come?
The open bar (okay, at least one vestige of years past remains) shut down 20 minutes after the doors opened, giving the diverse crowd of 20-somethings plenty of time to grab a folding chair and take out their notebooks.
The biggest name on the stage was Rashida Jones. Only it wasn’t that Rashida Jones.
“It’s a responsibility that you earn,” said Jones, a senior vice president at NBC News, of being a journalist in an important but sober conversation focused on the need to diversify newsrooms, especially in the age of Trump.
Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a party?
Here CNN’s Jim Acosta, the White House correspondent President Trump berated as “fake news” at a January presser, qualified as a celebrity.
“I’m just going to have one beer,” he said. “I’ve got a live shot at 8, but one beer is fine. I’ll sweat it out by then.” He then had to put his beer down to take photos with a group of female fans.
Across town, the crowd was even wonkier.
At Atlantic Media owner David Bradley’s home in Massachusetts Avenue Heights, the lack of La La Landers was a non-factor. Who needs the people from Hollywood who play movers and shakers on the small screen when there were actual senators, titans of industry and even a Cabinet secretary (hello, Gen. Mattis!) within arm’s reach under the poolside tent?
Okay, fine, Richard Branson — he of the billions, snow-white mane and chic vacations with former presidents — was spotted at the center table, but he was greeting Rajiv Shah, the former USAID administrator now heading the Rockefeller Foundation, like an old pal.
Bradley decreed the posh setting a conflict-free zone. Divisive politics are pervasive “in every quarter of the city, except this back yard,” he said.
Some of the bipartisan power pairings proved him right — former national security adviser Susan E. Rice was gabbing with her table mate, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.). Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were huddled on the stairs leading from the stately mansion to the tables. Werethey helping each other locate their seats or talking tax reform?
It was that kind of party. Half the Obama White House was here (former chief of staff Denis McDonough, former press secretary Jay Carney and bodyman Reggie Love) and enough senators to constitute a quorum of some kind.
Then this happened. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the Most Washington Moment Ever. Atlantic editor Jeff Goldberg joked to the crowd, many of whom were finding out — via whatever Bat-signal members of Congress get for such things — that North Korea had just test fired a ballistic missile: “Some advice to people at dinner — if Jim Mattis leaves suddenly, we’re going to move the party to the basement!”
Were we really making a joke about a North Korean bomb? Yes, we were really making a joke about a North Korean bomb.
At the British ambassador’s residence about a block away from Bradley’s home, another WHCD party, this one co-sponsored by glossy mag Capitol File, was in full swing. The crowd was basically made up of the people you might see on any given afternoon of watching cable TV — the journos, the talking heads, and the bookers and producer who got them there.
Remember a few years ago when we asked Robin Wright of “House of Cards” who her favorite White House correspondent was and she answered, “Who are they?” Well, this year the folks you see groaning in their seats at a Sean Spicer briefing were hitting up the open bar. Spotted strolling the grounds were ABC’s Jonathan Karl, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, Fox News Radio’s Jon Decker and ABC political director Rick Klein.
But there were some famous-outside-of-Washington people in town on Friday.
The annual Creative Coalition dinner brought out a slew of celebs from Wendi McLendon-Covey (of “Bridesmaids” fame) to Chad Lowe (“Pretty Little Liars”). Oh, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is a celebrity now, by the way.
Fictional politicos such as Tim Daly (“Madam Secretary”) and Matt Walsh (“Veep”) mixed with the crowd at Flavio in Georgetown. Asked whether he’d ever try his hand at politics off screen, Walsh immediately blurted out, “Never!”
Most of these pretty people won’t be at the actual dinner Saturday night, though. They came, they lobbied, they partied and then would eventually high-tail it back home.
For the first year ever, United Talent Agency, which represents Samantha Bee (who’s hosting her own counter-dinner Saturday afternoon), threw its own shindig in town.
The movie stars filing into the posh Fiola Mare on Georgetown’s waterfront included Kal Penn from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (also a former Obama White House staffer) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) from “The Dark Knight.”
In past years, the entire cast of “Modern Family” (and “Veep,” “House of Cards,” “Blackish” and “Scandal”) would come to celebrate journalism, or, er, see the president do stand-up. But this year, just the kid who plays Luke showed. Somehow 18-year-old Nolan Gould, the formerly adorable little brother on the ABC sitcom, is now old enough to wear skinny jeans and talk with girls (though maybe not old enough to drink whatever it is he was drinking).
“Is that the kid from ‘Modern Family,’ and why is he dancing like that?” asked a partygoer. “I guess that counts as a celebrity.”
Other sightings proved more newsworthy. Journalist Carl Bernstein huddled in a side room talking with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Brian Kilmeade from “Fox and Friends” was around, too, and nobody even bothered to ask him about what is going on with all his friends at Fox News. Mike Allen from Axios stood by the bar, people watching. But just whom he was trying to catch we’ll never know, because it’s official: Nerd prom is looking even nerdier than we thought.
And yet, they persisted. What Saturday’s garden brunch lacked in Hollywood celebrities was made up with plenty of the usual suspects from media, policy and government including Mayor Muriel Bowser.
This year’s brunch at the Georgetown home of Connie Milstein was billed as “intimate.” About 350 people passed through the house to the backyard tent — with the pool covered with a white carpeted floor, two bars, three food stations and a donut installation.
“This IS intimate for us,” said co-host Tammy Haddad.
Reporters Emily Heil, Ben Terris, Roxanne Roberts and Sarah Polus contributed to this article.