D.C.’s media prom night, more commonly known as the White House Correspondents Dinner, was the usual preening lovefest between power and celebrity. Yes, journalism awards were handed out — the original purpose of the dinner — but while that was happening, the din of partygoers asking one another about sightings of the famous as well as other, more pressing matters (“Hey, remember me?”) all but drowned out the announcements.
President Bush, in his last appearance as prom king, offered up funny snippets of video from his previous appearances as he set a mildly wistful and occasionally self-mocking tone. Even the entertainment provided by Craig Ferguson of CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” while sometimes edgy, was more or less in line with the largely self-celebrating spirit of the evening.
The D.C.-Hollywood nexus was evoked from the start with a red-carpet arrival into the lobby of the Washington Hilton complete with throngs of fans behind velvet ropes.
Among the boldface names that elicited shrieks from those behind the ropes: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, John Cusack, Claire Danes, will.i.am., the Jonas Brothers, Jenny McCarthy, Ashlee Simpson, Pamela Anderson, Aaron Eckhart, Kal Penn, Martha Stewart, Dan Glickman, Mitt Romney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Antonin Scalia, Salman Rushdie, Tucker Carlson, Andrea Mitchell and, yes, Internet gossip Perez Hilton.
Dinner was a sit-down, formal affair, but as soon as dessert came, the serious table-hopping began. Some 2,000 people in the Hilton’s Intl. Ballroom mingled and roamed, some in search of friends or colleagues, others simply trying to see or be seen.
Then Ann Compton of ABC News, current head of the White House Correspondents Assn., rang a bell to signal the president was about to speak.
“Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed this dinner,” Bush said, drawing laughs with his allusion to his often contentious relations with the press.
After showing some clips of his remarks from previous dinners, Bush then noted that none of his three possible successors was present.
“Senator McCain’s not here,” he said.” He probably wanted to distance himself from me a little bit. You know, he’s not alone. Jenna’s moving out too.”
Hillary Clinton couldn’t get into the building “because of sniper fire,” and “Sen. Obama’s at church,” Bush said.
He thanked the press corps “for the work you do for the country,” and then said he was going to do something he’s always wanted to do.
The curtain behind him rose, revealing the U.S. Marine Band. With baton in hand, Bush conducted them (or tried to) through “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The Scotland-born Ferguson waxed humorously and with seeming pride at his newly acquired U.S. citizenship but also issued a few bipartisan pokes.
Offering a suggestion for what the president could do after leaving office next year, Ferguson mused, “You could look for a job with more vacation time.” Critics who’ve derided Bush for having taken too many vacations probably got the biggest yuk out of that.
Ferguson noted that VP Dick Cheney “is already moving out of his residence. It takes longer than you think to pack up an entire dungeon.”
Ferguson was amazed to learn, he said, that Bill Clinton makes upward of $500,000 per speech — “but he’ll talk dirty for free!”
Ferguson then turned to the media, in particular Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who seem to be constantly provoking and attacking each other.
Genuine mutual dislike? No, said Ferguson, “what I see is sexual tension.”
Ferguson’s only really harsh remarks were directed at the New York Times, which boycotted the dinner as a too-cozy party that “undercuts the credibility of the press,” he said.
“I thought it was Jayson Blair and Judy Miller who did that,” he deadpanned, referring to ex-Times staffers whose work drew massive criticism for plagiarism and inaccurate reporting, respectively.
“Shut the hell up, you sanctimonious whining jerks!” Ferguson shouted, presumably in the Times’ general direction.
Such an event is not without its surreal moments. Among this year’s most amusing scenes was the sight of former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich being denied admittance to a men’s room that the Secret Service had secured for use only by ultra-VIPs.