The 98th White House Correspondents Assn. dinner moved even further into the nation’s consciousness this year as President Obama delivered zingers, some self-mocking and others aimed at his political opponents, while host Jimmy Kimmel topped it off with a smattering of singe-worthy quips.
This annual event has become much more than the “nerd prom,” as it is known in D.C. A weekend where cultural triviality conquers political stature is evolving into a see-and-be-seen spectacle of red carpets and photo lines, echoing how Sundance and South by Southwest became magnets of media buzz. Hollywood celebrities are now joined in their traditional visit to the Beltway by an influx of supermodels, sponsors and tech entrepreneurs.
At Saturday’s dinner, Kimmel, noting the presence of heroic U.S. Air pilot Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger and a darling of TMZ in the same Hilton ballroom, asked, “Sully, would you do us a favor? Would you mind driving Lindsay Lohan home?”
Obama, who has made latenight TV a platform, excelled at timing and delivery: “Jimmy got his start on ‘The Man Show.’ In Washington that’s what we call a congressional hearing on contraception.” And another: “In my first term I ended the policy known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ In my second term we will replace it with a policy known as ‘It’s Raining Men.’ ”
The once-surreal mix of wonkish cabinet secretaries and the famous-for-being famous has now become commonplace. Wandering through the Hilton halls to the many pre-dinner receptions hosted by major media, there was Uggie, the dog from “The Artist”; on the next glimpse there was Donald Rumsfeld.
Standing with three of his children at the Yahoo! ABC News reception, Republican presidential also-ran Rick Santorum told Variety, “The only reason I’m here is they wanted to go. I took them around the country with me (during the campaign) and the least I could do is bring them someplace where they wanted to go.”
Meanwhile, the ritual of media companies inviting celebrities to their tables seems to have taken on more importance. Those who showed this year included George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Diane Keaton, Kate Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Spacey, Reese Witherspoon, Goldie Hawn, Clare Danes and just about the entire cast of “Modern Family,” along with industry execs including Leslie Moonves and Ari Emanuel. Perhaps the most attention went to Lohan and Kim Kardashian, who were Fox News gudests and seemed comfortable with the attention, despite barbs from folks including Obama.
At the Time-People event at the St. Regis Hotel, one of Friday’s many pre-parties, in the the mix were Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rashida Jones, Gayle King and Daniel Dae Kim along with Time managing editor Richard Stengel, author Walter Isaacson, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. John Heilemann, co-author of “Game Change,” was there along with Danny Strong, the pic’s screenwriter.
At the annual Garden Brunch on Saturday, hosted by Tammy Haddad, Hilary Rosen and others at the historic Washington Beall House, the guests included Woody Harrelson and the man he played in “Game Change,” Steve Schmidt, along with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, Rosario Dawson, White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard, Bob Woodward, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Steve Case and Matthew Morrison.
As much as there was talk of the Hollywood-ization of the weekend — Politico ran a special print issue juxtaposing Capitol Hill and the Hollywood sign — that is not all of it. Sponsors have entered the equation.
On Friday night, the First Amendment Party hosted by Impact Arts and Film Fund, Funny or Die and the National Journal and the Atlantic, was held in a former Borders book store dressed up in Regency style to look like Las Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Take that for a metaphor. Supermodel Kate Upton bounded in with an entourage, right to an area cordoned off with red velvet rope, with the non-VIPs just outside staring in.
As much as media companies capitalize on the events of the weekend to promote their weight in Washington, tech firms have also been staking their ground.
Having hired its first White House correspondent, Olivier Knox, Yahoo! bought a table at the dinner for the first time. Google hosted a party with the Hollywood Reporter on Friday, with Eric Schmidt among attendees, along with senior reps from Facebook, Twitter and a few startups.
An adviser to a number of startups, journalist Rachel Sklar, nailed it in an op-ed Saturday in Politico: “In this star-studded weekend of Washington Whiplash, they walk amongst you invisible and unnoticed — but if you pay attention to who they are, what they’re building, and where they think the industry is going, you’ll be way ahead of the game.”
She advised that if you see someone who looks more like a Jonas Brother, it’s probably Jason Putorti, founder of Votizen, a startup that uses social networks to connect voters across constituencies and issues.
Just minutes after Saturday’s dinner, Twitter sent out the top tweeted moments, topped by Kimmel’s fat jokes about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (Christie, to his credit, laughed along with the audience).
Although many media and entertainment outlets are present, C-SPAN has owned coverage of the dinner, but its live feed of the red carpet expanded to other events. It covered arrivals to the Garden Brunch, shedding further light on just why show biz figures show. The weekend “has just got a lot of unique, smart, interesting folks,” Kerry Washington told one reporter on her way in, explaining why she so often makes the trek.
Tim Daly told a reporter his main purpose for coming was to promote arts funding for the Creative Coalition. Harrelson reportedly told others, simply, “I was invited.”
Easy to get lost, however, is the whole purpose: The WHCA dinner raises money for journalism scholarships. Just hours before the big event, Eva Longoria tweeted, “Getting ready for the White House Correspondence dinner!” It’s “Correspondents,” but it’s easy to see how things like spelling get lost in the hoopla.