WHCA Dinner: The Clash of Substance and the Superficial


Nick Loeb, Sofia Vergara, Rick SantorumThe Washington Hilton tonight is once again a surreal place, as President Obama addresses the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner. The event is actually a benefit for journalism scholarships, but that purpose has gotten lost in the tradition of Hollywood types, tabloid celebrities and policy wonks mixing it up.

For at least this weekend, cultural triviality has conquered the political community. A case in point: tonight, outside the CBS News/Atlantic Media pre-dinner reception at the Hilton, one of about two dozen cocktail receptions, Donald Rumsfeld walked down the hall just ahead of Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from “The Artist.”

Standing with three of his children at the Yahoo! ABC News reception, Rick Santorum told Variety, “The only reason I am here is they wanted to go. I took they around the country with me [during the campaign] and the least I could do is bring them someplace where they wanted to go.” Soon he was mingling with Sofia Vergara, and then he engaged in a long conversation with California Gov. Jerry Brown, from the other side of the political spectrum.

While the spectacle is not new, what is new is the scope.

What was once a curiosity has become the norm. C-SPAN has done the red carpet for the past few years; this year they are covering arrivals at not just the dinner but one of the pre-parties, the annual Garden Brunch hosted by Tammy Haddad, Hilary Rosen and others. The weekend “has just got a lot of unique, smart, interesting folks,” Kerry Washington told one reporter on her way in.

The space inside the Hilton entrance is packed with entertainment media paparrazi, penned off as they shouted at actresses like Rashida Jones, Charlize Theron and Lindsay Lohan for a pose. Other outlets, like CNN.com, the Washington Post and Politico, have joined C-SPAN in offering live streaming coverage.

Lohan was part of a contingent of celebrities making the jump from TMZ to mixing with the D.C. policy elite. Also present were Kim Kardashian and Kris Jenner.

George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Diane Keaton, Kate Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Goldie Hawn and Clare Danes also were among those there. And there also is a number of industry executives, including Leslie Moonves, Ari Emanuel and Stacey Snider. Woody Harrelson appeared at several events with Steve Schmidt, the man he played in HBO’s “Game Change.” Asked by one reporter why he was here, Harrelson said, simply, “I was invited.”

The event has long been a promotional platform for media companies, but sponsors have increasingly turned to the event. A party on Friday, hosted by The Atlantic, the Impact Film Fund and Funny or Die, was held in a former Borders Books, dressed in the Regency style to look like the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. Supermodel Kate Upton bounded in and headed to an area roped off for VIPs.

Another difference: The presence of tech firms. Google and The Hollywood Reporter hosted a party on Friday, a reflection of the tech giant’s increasing DC influence, to the point where some administration officials did not attend because of concerns over lobbying rules. But reps from Facebook and Twitter were out and about, and Yahoo! for the first time bought a table at the dinner, having hired a White House correspondent for the first time.

Eva Longoria tweeted on Saturday afternoon, “Getting ready for the White House Correspondence dinner!” It’s “Correspondents,” but with what the event has become, you start to get how she made the error.

Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty: Nick Loeb, Sofia Vergara, Rick Santorum.

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