WASHINGTON – This is the time when Americans renew their hatred of Washington and Washington wallows in a bittersweet cocktail of self-love and self-loathing.
Which is to say, this is White House Correspondents’ Association weekend, with the dinner Saturday night amid a galaxy of pre- and after-parties. Attendant to these events is the also-annual handwringing about the dinner’s value.
Those questioning, of course, are the media, who create the problem, then examine the problem, then suggest ways to solve the problem (that we don’t really believe is a problem) and then go on to repeat the problem.
The rest of the world couldn’t care less about the dinner except perhaps to note that Washington is out of touch with regular Americans and that journalists are too schmoozy with officialdom. Most journalists would agree, but who would want to miss the scholarship awards? Oh, you didn’t know about those?
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What we all hate most is the attendance of so many celebrities, who undermine the noble purpose of this convocation. Moreover, they tend to make journalists, who have spent considerable time looking their red-carpet best, feel like last week’s tulips.
Hence, the popular description of Washington as “Hollywood for Ugly People,” and the dinner as the “Nerd Prom.” Not that anyone in the media really feels this way, but it makes everyone feel better to say so, especially in light of the seething wall of protesters gathered each year outside the Washington Hilton.
The buzz-killer crowd, however, is quickly forgotten once inside, where an avenue of cameras and lights awaits stars passing along the red carpet. Note to future newbies: Your entrance is upstairs. Otherwise, you risk a probable humiliation that the lights will suddenly go dark and your grand entrance becomes a soul-killing walk of shame past a gantlet of fish-eyed fans of other people.
This experience can be helpful, on the other hand, as you summon the requisite pose of perpetual self-awareness. Your thinking should follow this vein: It’s not that you want to go to the dinner. It’s your job to go. Whither goes the president, so go the media. And of course, the media did invite him, as well as all those celebrities we find so disruptive. There’s a circularity to all of this that suggests an apt metaphor.
Another handy prompt to self-awareness is being gridlocked among 2,800 overheated people in long gowns and tuxedos as one tries to funnel one’s way toward the escalator to the pre-party area. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Cabinet members and screen stars reminds us that no matter one’s station in life, we all perspire the same.
Almost no one present will fail to note his or her ambiguity toward the dinner and the parties that most are dying to attend. There are exceptions to this club-think, notably The New York Times and Tom Brokaw. The Times stopped sending its staffers several years ago, saying the media shouldn’t be partying with people it covers.
Brokaw made headlines when he protested the celebrity-driven nature of the evening, specifically following Lindsay Lohan’s overshadowing presence the year before last. He lamented that the purpose of the evening – to allow journalists and politicians to mingle in a lighthearted, relaxed environment – had been hijacked.
He was right about the Lohan spectacle. I was standing nearby visiting with Lohan’s hostess, Greta Van Susteren, when none other than Rick Santorum brought his daughters for a snapshot with the starlet. Brokaw is also right about the superficiality and misplaced emphasis of the evening. For this reason, many of us, including Van Susteren, swear we’ll never go again. But since most of us (BEG ITAL)do(END ITAL) attend again, I hoped Brokaw might relent and asked him to be my date this year.
With his usual blunt charm, he described in delicious detail why he would never again darken the door of the correspondents’ dinner. Feeling shallow and contrite before such superior standards, I feebly offered that I agreed completely, but, you see, I had this dress.
“Well,” he said, “If you’d let me wear the dress, I might reconsider.”
Oh, how I loathe myself, my lack of will, my willingness to laugh at great jokes, greet friends and eat free food – the real lure for journalists who remember when they were always hungry.
Thus, as you are my witness, I vow never again. At least until next time – or Brokaw wears a dress.