Behold the coming journo-celebrity mash-up known as the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
The actual meal -- this year featuring eco-friendly organic food and carbon-offsets for travel -- is Saturday night. The 2,600 guests include the president and first lady, of course, many of the bright lights and dim bulbs from Old and New Media alike, and of course, politicians, campaign operatives, bureaucrats, lobbyists, lawyers, 17 high schoolers receiving journalism scholarships, and a large slice of the Hollywood-NewYork FamousPeople axis.
Justin Bieber! Jessica Simpson! Chelsea Handler! Betty White! Lindsey Vonn! Spike Lee! Mariska Hargitay! John Mellencamp! Judd Apatow!
Long dubbed the Nerd Prom by snarks and Washington's Oscars by dreamers, what began in 1920 as a clubby banquet for the gents who covered the White House (this was waaay before Helen Thomas) has mushroomed to include a spiraling number of ever more extravagant, ever more exclusive parties that wrap around the dinner like a bustier on a buxom starlet.
The inaugural-length march across the social calendar kicked off Tuesday with an all-media cocktail party and will end Sunday with no fewer than three brunches and a screening of "All the President's Men." In between, hundreds of anointed invitees will shuttle and swan around town to bask in each others' fabulousness at private homes, hot nightspots, hotel rooftops, elegant ballrooms, and even the French ambassador's residence. It was inside this rarefied bubble last year that White House budget chief Peter Orszag met ABC's Bianna Golodryga, his latest lady love.
"It's become a competition about who can get the better 'get,' " said Tammy Haddad, a former producer for Chris Matthews and Larry King and thus no stranger to megawatt wrangling. "Journalists are very competitive and there are very few times they get to go head to head, like at a political convention." The dinner, she said, gives these multiplatform media rivals a perfect showcase "to bring in someone of interest to draw attention to the work they are doing."
Indeed, the rush for celebrity guests and tickets (we'll get to the lawsuit in a moment) has grown so intense that Haddad -- who now runs her own media company -- last year co-founded whitehousecorrespondentsweekendinsider.com as the go-to site for all things WHCAD. This year, Politico.com has multiple staffers feeding the beast with late-breaking coverage that spotlights everything from the menu to after-party event planners. Both sites list the Saturday afternoon garden party at Haddad's home, given with a clutch of co-hosts. This year it has ties to a pair of charities, a guest list of 500, and a special interview area so the boldface names won't feel hassled by working journos under the tent.
Not so long ago, the dinner was just the dinner, with a few news organizations offering early cocktails or postprandial nightcaps at the Hilton Washington. This kept everyone under one roof for that symbiotic dance between reporters and their conventional government sources. The evening was useful, but hardly sexy. You had your deputy assistant secretaries of whatever, your House subcommittee staff directors, some joint chiefs, agency directors, governors. You get the picture.
In 1987, however, the late Michael Kelly, then at The Baltimore Sun, invited a babe-a-licious game changer.
Her name was Fawn Hall, the document-shredding White House secretary of Col. Oliver North, an architect of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra gambit. The next year, Kelly squired Donna Rice, whose tryst with Sen. Gary Hart killed his Democratic presidential bid. And the race for outside-the-box invitees was launched all over town. Scandalistas, including Bill Clinton's nemesis, Paula Jones, soon gave way to growing numbers of actors, filmmakers, rockers and jocks. (In the late 1980s, I took my first hottie guest, rhythm and blues legend Ruth Brown, to the dinner. We'd met when she testified before a House judiciary panel about how she'd been screwed out of royalties by her record labels.)
George Condon, who covers the White House for Congress Daily and was association president in 1993-94, has seen it all.
"The truth is that the same people who complained back then that it was too boring and a chore to go to are now complaining there is too much glitz, that the dinner has been hijacked by Hollywood," he said.
Maybe not hijacked, but certainly rich with irony. Or something.
On Friday night, The New Yorker will host its debut cocktail party for 200, including a goodly number of reporters, at the edgy W Hotel. No "outside" press coverage is allowed, meaning only those inside may tweet, blog, video, write or otherwise share their view of food, fashion, music, fellow invitees and -- because this is The New Yorker -- the riveting conversations held in the requisite "quiet room." (Would that every party had such a low-decibel hideaway).
On Saturday night, CNN's Wolf Blitzer co-stars with the Food Network's Bobby Flay as "special guests" at the Capitol File/Niche Media after-bash. Was Flay chosen because White House chef Cristeta Comerford beat him in an Iron Chef cook-off that was supposed to, but did not in fact, use produce from Michelle Obama's backyard garden?
Or is Bobby simply getting lots of lettuce to oversee cocktails and canapes while doing a little A-list schmoozing of his own?
No less a temple of culture than the Library of Congress becomes Thursday night's backdrop for the Creative Coalition's celeb-studded, red carpet arrival of such entertainer-activists as Adrian Grenier, Dana Delaney and Spike Lee. By Friday morning, the talent will fan out across Capitol Hill to lobby for the arts before a weekend of getting down with the press and the pols.
"Washington has gotten a bum rap that we are all of bunch of boring, uptight people," said event producer Philip Dufour, who is orchestrating MSNBC's Saturday night after-party at the monumental Mellon Auditorium. "D.C. is full of some of the smartest people in the world, with two and three degrees who choose to live here and work on the Hill and at the White House. It's one of the reasons this dinner has become so big from a celebrity perspective. Most of them are Americans and they come here and they are in awe. It amps up every year."
Oh yes, now back to that $10 million breach-of-contract suit filed against the Correspondents' Association on behalf of WorldNetDaily.com, the conservative website that is long on anti-Obama birther and other conspiracy theorists. WND White House scribe Les Kinsolving (who's been covering presidents since Richard Nixon) requested three tables (30 tickets at $225 a pop); his employer sent a check. The WHCA allotted just three seats. So activist attorney Larry Klayman filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, alleging WND had been wrongfully deprived of a significant presence at the "Academy Awards for the media and political establishment." Later this week, he will ask a judge to order the WHCA to give his client at least one table.
Association president Ed Chen, who covers the White House for Bloomberg News, called the lawsuit "futile." Many news organizations asked for way more tickets than they were given, including The New Yorker, which failed to snag a separate table for sister publication Conde Nast Traveler.
Klayman predicts victory, but should he fail, he told me he's taking all three WND tickets for himself, in lieu of legal fees.
That, during the madness that has become the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner weekend, is the definition of pro bono.
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