WHCD: Dinner Backgrounder

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Hollywood can have its Oscar night. Television can keep its Emmys and the music industry its Grammys.

For one weekend each year, Washington takes center stage as the epicenter for blockbuster deal-making, power-inflating connections and, yes, even a touch of glamour and celebrity, at least as far as beltway standards go.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become the pinnacle of “dinner season” inside the capital city and among the most anticipated dates of the year for the power players, or those who aspire to become one. In fact, it’s no longer just about the dinner but revolves around a whole weekend of brunches, receptions and after-dinner parties. In other words, a bona fide “happening” worth flying in for if one lives in, say, New York City or Los Angeles.

While the spotlight shines brightest on the dinner itself and, to a lesser extent, the exclusive after-dinner party thrown by Bloomberg News, it’s a weekend without rest for the who’s who of the media world, the political industry and the occasional celebrity brave enough to run the gauntlet.

The Dinner

It wasn’t always this way. Started in 1920 by the White House Correspondents’ Association (the media consortium organized to deal with the White House and press for issues such as access, among other things), the dinner had long been a way for the press and the president to step out for a nice evening, and reporters to mingle with their Washington sources, but it remained a rather staid affair for most of its existence.

Things began to change in 1987 when the late Michael Kelly, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, set tongues wagging when he accompanied Fawn Hall (Oliver North’s document-shredding secretary) fresh off her starring role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The next year, Kelly one-upped himself by bringing along Donna Rice, the woman whose dalliance with Gary Hart had ended his presidential campaign.

After that, the arms race to nab the hottest and most outrageous guests was on.

A virtual parade of celebrities now attend each year (held inside the Washington Hilton’s cavernous basement ballroom), elevating the spectacle to new heights. Television camera crews, professional photographers and D.C. celebrity watchers now line the red carpet (yes, a red carpet), waiting to capture the entrance of a Martha Stewart or the latest “American Idol” sensation.

Elected officials, administration figures, media moguls and even diplomats and policy wonks sit around tables in the enormous room next to one another, and occasionally an Ozzie Osborne or Larry Flynt. Even “B” or “C”-list celebrities can draw a crowd in Washington and the ever-growing list includes names like Marla Maples, Paula Jones and gossiper Perez Hilton. But it’s always a bonus for the gawkers when a big-time name like Barbara Streisand, Kevin Costner or George Clooney shows up.

The dinner itself is more barely-controlled chaos than relaxing conversation. Gongs throughout the hotel summon attendees scurrying to the security screening line then down a flight of stairs where the adventure of finding one’s assigned table begins. Even in a space so large (36,000 square feet), tables and chairs are literally jammed up against one another and the custom of table-hopping (seeking out and glad-handing anyone within eyesight you’d want to be seen with) can cause bottleneck traffic jams.

The crowd quiets only for the President’s arrival, the Presentation of Colors and the after-dinner entertainment, to a dull roar at least. How the legions of wait staff navigate the mass remains a mystery but food is served. The fare each year is forgotten almost the minute it’s consumed, however. Dinner itself is hardly the point.

The Entertainment

Every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended the dinner at least once during their time in office but in recent decades it’s become mandatory participation for the commander-in-chief. And the expectations have become as high for their performances as for the professionals brought in to entertain.

Often a reflection of the times, the after-dinner comments by the president are generally an opportunity for taking a few shots at the media, their political opponents and, most importantly, themselves. Some years are more subdued. In 2003, President Bush dispensed with the jokes, instead delivering a solemn tribute to two journalists who had died in the early phase of the Iraq war – Michael Kelly and NBC’s David Bloom. And in lieu of the usual professional comic, Ray Charles entertained. (Bush again passed on the humor in 2007 in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings).

Despite such rare exceptions, the presidents usually take on the role of stand-up comedians, delivering one-liners, performing sketches and starring in pre-produced videos. Some performances are unmemorable but others become stuff of dinner legend.

In 1975, Gerald Ford made the most of the presence of comedian Chevy Chase (who portrayed the president as a stumbling klutz) by dumping the table ware onto the emcee’s lap as he rose to speak. Ronald Reagan and impersonator Rich Little performed in a press conference skit (an act repeated by George W. Bush and mimicker Steve Bridges in 2006).

For his last of eight straight appearances at the dinner, Bill Clinton starred in one of the most memorable video productions in the history of the event, portraying himself as a latch-key president who wandered the halls of the White House, answered phones and manicured the grounds as the rest of the staff, his vice president and his wife abandoned him for future endeavors.

It was the sort of self-deprecation we’ve come to expect from our presidents on these evenings. What is delivered by the star act each year can sometimes be a crap-shoot, however.

While a few off-color or offensive jokes are expected, sometimes the performers can get a little too close for comfort for the crowd – and especially the president. When Stephen Colbert performed at the dinner in 2007, he inflamed the deteriorating relationship between press and the Bush Administration which had gone through the failed rationale for the war in Iraq, the Valerie Plame leak investigation and the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, among other issues.

The media had been under fire from the political left for some time and Colbert crystallized their complaints by explaining the “rules” of covering the White House. “The president makes decisions,” he started. “He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know – fiction.”

The next year, Rich Little was pulled out of mothballs to give a widely-panned performance that, while unfunny, was not controversial. (In 1996 Don Imus enraged the Clinton White House with some off-color references to the president’s sexual appetites but that occurred at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, one of the run-ups to the big night).

For the performers, it’s a tightrope to walk, to be funny without overstepping sensitivities or good taste. The stakes have risen since the 1990s when C-SPAN began televising it live. No longer are the night’s events relayed in short print stories. Now, everyone can see the show for themselves and clips live on YouTube forever. Still, the list of past comics who’ve taken on the task in recent years includes entertainers like Craig Ferguson, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Darrell Hammond and Jon Stewart. This year, comic actress Wanda Sykes will headline the dinner.

The Controversy

The increased attention to the cozy confluence of the press and the people they cover has kept questions humming about the nature of the relationship throughout most of the dinner’s history.

The spectacle of reporters hob-knobbing and sharing inside jokes with government officials they are supposed to hold accountable strikes critics as a step too far. Particularly for the actual White House Correspondents who frequently chafe at the lack of access and information they are provided with from the White House.

In reality, it’s sometimes a dysfunctional relationship by its very nature. Administrations seek to control information and message on their timelines and agendas, not the media’s. For reporters assigned to the beat, frustration is all around. The truth of the matter is that the White House has a tremendous amount of control over the media – from where they can and cannot go to who they talk to and when. Some administrations are better than others when it comes to their message discipline but the trend is towards more control, not less.

Others see little harm in a night (or three) of gathering together for the common purpose they all serve in one way or another. While the media and government exist as adversaries, they have much in common and the Correspondents’ Dinner is hardly the only occasion where they socialize.

Most in the press itself say there’s only benefits to developing good relationships because it leads to more information and a better understanding for the American people. Critics complain that it leads to the exact opposite, that truths remain uncovered because reporters fear damaging those connections (see: Colbert, Stephen).

The debate has raged for decades and probably always will. But despite the occasional complaints, panned performances and uncomfortable moments, the show will go on. Nobody in Washington wants to lose the town’s big weekend, after all.

–Vaughn Ververs

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