Here’s my story for on the dinner for the print edition of Variety:
The arrival of President Obama’s administration undoubtedly injected a new sense of energy into this year’s White House Correspondent’s Assn. dinner, transforming an event labeled the “nerd prom” into something more akin to the Golden Globes.
In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, the sound of a protester shouting down Donald Rumsfeld was drowned out by the piercing screams of teenage fans as they watched for the likes of Natalie Portman, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and cast members from “Gossip Girl” to arrive.
The surreal D.C.-Hollywood-media mix is an annual ritual, but it was as if everything was in alignment this year. With names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Alicia Keys, Sting, Jon Bon Jovi and Warren Buffett, even former Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked on the presence of so many good “gets,” in his words. At a string of pre-parties sponsored by media outlets, attendees and photographers clamored for a look at the latest VIP, although it was hard to get tell if its was for the Hollywood figure or a cabinet member or someone like Richard Phillips, the captain of the ship seized by Somali pirates.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the nature of the annual event itself. The President still delivered one-liners fit for Jay Leno. The dinner entertainment, Wanda Sykes, still inspired the after-event consternation as to whether she went too far. The New York Times still boycotted, on the grounds that the cavorting of White House press corps with the administration they cover is a bit too unprofessional.
And as is always the case, the fete puts deep-thinking policy makers into ball gowns and tuxes, and just about everyone scrambling to see and be seen with anyone who can incite a flash bulb. “It is one of the most self indulgent evenings of the year,” Powell, who has two children in entertainment, told Variety.
By most accounts, Obama passed this first major test of presidential humor with flying colors.
“Most of you covered me,” he said to the journos. “All of you voted for me. Apologies to the Fox table.”
Then came the quip that got the greatest laugh, at the expense of chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: “Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. This is a tough holiday for Rahm. He’s not used to saying the word ‘day’ after ‘mother.'”
More questionable — if only because D.C. isn’t quite used to her sharp tongue — was after-dinner entertainer Wanda Sykes, who toned down her language but didn’t spare much when it came to Rush Limbaugh.
“He just wants the country to fail. To me, that’s treason. He’s not saying anything different than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.”
Another joke elicited some soft groans: “Governor Palin is not here. She pulled out at the last minute. Someone should tell her: That is not how you practice abstinence.” Palin’s husband, Todd, was at the Fox table.
Afterward, White House senior adviser David Axelrod called Sykes “very entertaining.” “She walked it to the line, but I thought she pulled it back,” he said.
Conservative commentators grumbled, and Bill O’Reilly darted off refusing to give his take. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was more restrained. “Wanda Sykes is Wanda Sykes,” he said, before warning, “I think Rush will have a few things to say in the coming days.”
The event drew no where near the GOPers of the Bush years — one attendee called last year’s event “glum” — but figures like Newt Gingrich mingled at the pre-dinner parties. A beaming Rumsfeld seemed unfazed as he entered to the woman’s shouts of “War criminal! Arrest this man!” right in his face. Asked about it by Variety, he threw his hands up in the air and said, “They are out front demonstrating about animals… It is life in America.”
But as much as the superficial trumped seriousness, there were unmistakable signs that the governing class isn’t going to be consumed by the glitter. At a party at the Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted by Capitol File, Emanuel kept his distance from the red carpet. There’s also the case of an official from the Naval Heritage Museum, who watched as her workplace was taken over by a smattering of celebrities and politicos for a Creative Coalition/Capitol File screening of Barry Levinson’s new doc, “PoliWood,” on Friday. Shaking her head at a rope line, she said, “Too self important for me,” and left.
As fascinated as they may be with each other, these are two worlds that just don’t entirely equate. At a pre-dinner brunch at the home of media entrepreneur Tammy Haddad, Val Kilmer told her he was “probably not” going to run for governor of New Mexico, as he had been considering, according to Politico. Soon after that, he walked into the party, spotted Christian Slater, and rushed over to hug him, saying, “There’s one of my kind.”