WASHINGTON — In the after-parties that followed the White House Correspondents Assn. Dinner, the consensus was that President Obama upstaged the Hollywood comic on the dais, Jay Leno.
But this year, more than any other, had many wondering whether Hollywood has started to upstage the Saturday evening event itself.
What was once a rather simple banquet evening for the president and the press has evolved into D.C.’s version of Oscar week. It’s not just the star quotient; that has been there for some time, and certainly since Obama took office. Nor is it the surreal spectacle of seeing cast members of “Glee” mingling in a crowd among Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House budget director Peter Orszag.
This year it was the realization that the event had extended itself well into the previous week, with a series of cocktail parties, live performances, a movie premiere and other dinners capitalizing on all of the attention, not to mention an influx of corporate sponsorships. Save for the Saturday dinner itself, it’s also become entirely possible to make it through the week without actually seeing a White House correspondent.
“So far, it’s just like Hollywood,” Dennis Quaid, about to take in his first dinner, said of the atmosphere just outside the Time/Fortune/CNN/People pre-party at the Washington Hilton.
That certainly was true with the frenzy that surrounded the arrivals area and red carpet, where stars like Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Alba posed for photographers, all of it captured live on C-SPAN 1, which was competing, at least for an evening, with “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood.” (The anchors at the wonkish network can be forgiven for not being entirely sure who people were.)
Even compared to last year, however, there was much tighter control over the whole operation. A long dinner tradition has been the gallery of pre-dinner, media-sponsored parties in the hotel. But this year, staffs armed with clipboards stood at doorways to check invites to each fete. The extra precaution against unwanted guests does not stem from a threat, but from reality television, i.e. the alleged gate-crashers who successfully got in to the White House state dinner last November just as they were hoping to be cast in the upcoming “Real Housewives of D.C.”
That vigilance was enough to create a bottleneck that extended up two flights of escalators, made worse when one woman’s dress got caught in the steps. Attorney General Eric Holder sought a shortcut. Others, like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, weren’t as lucky, and waited. “Crazy,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), as she stood in the throng.
Also in the line was White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who could only marvel and chuckle at the transformation of the event. “When did this, become this?”
According to C-SPAN figures, some 2,610 attended the dinner itself, but 560, including some unhappy D.C. journos, had to be turned away as the dinner oversold. There was some grumbling that celebrities were taking up all the seats. Years past have seen one, maybe two teen sensations; this year there was an array of them, including the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber and Chace Crawford.
Obama took note of this, telling the Jonases not to “get any ideas” about his daughters, Sasha and Malia, both big fans. He said to the heartthrobs: “I have two words for you: Predator drones.”
Far a standard Toastmasters-style speech, Obama’s monologue resembled Jon Stewart in its biting satire, particularly on the news business, as he riffed on some of the absurdities of the 24-hour-news channels and Twitter-paced Internet reporting.
Aiming a zinger at Leno before “The Tonight Show” host could fire one at him, the president alluded to the latenight drama of the past year. “I am glad that the only person whose ratings fell more than mine last year is here tonight. Great to see you, Jay.”
With its safe shots at lawyers and corrupt politicians, Leno’s routine largely mirrored his nightly monologue, but also was notable for its heavy use of pre-produced video clips, perhaps signaling more elaborate staging to come in future years.
As the dinner has grown in size and scope, so have the pre-dinner events. An annual garden brunch at the home of Tammy Haddad and Ted Greenberg was among the biggest, with a step-and-repeat photo line against a backdrop of BET and Audi sponsor logos, attended by hundreds ranging from White House senior adviser David Axelrod to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to Rupert Murdoch. The event has evolved from a D.C.-centric gathering to a charity effort for Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, whose president is Axelrod’s wife, Susan.
There was little doubt who got the most attention: Paparazzi staked out on the quaint residential street to capture the arrival of the Jonas Brothers.
It’s enough to make you wonder: Can the Correspondents’ dinner, and its surrounding events, still be referred to as the “Nerd Prom,” a favorite moniker? In fact, there was a touch of elegance or a hipness that would match or exceed anything in Los Angeles.
Time and People sponsored a tony pre-dinner party at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday evening, where “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe gave interviews and posed for pictures in much the same way she did in the lead-up to the Oscars.
On Thursday, the Creative Coalition hosted a performance at the Library of Congress, featuring Adrien Grenier, Spike Lee and Cheryl Hines, among others, that was tied to the library’s collection of rare audio and visual recordings. An Impact Film Fund/Funny or Die First Amendment party at a Georgetown nightclub was no different than the atmosphere at a Hollywood spot.
“Someone asked me what the difference between Hollywood and Washington was, and I said, ‘It’s all the same,'” said producer Jerry Weintraub, attending a W Hotel signing of Maria Bartiromo’s new book, “The 10 Laws of Enduring Success.”
Use of the event as a promotional platform also was apparent in the makeup of the dinner tables. Along with Jeff Zucker and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, NBC News hosted a heavy dose of network stars like Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Fallon.
At the MSNBC after-party at the Mellon Auditorium, three-story tall banners of the news networks’ stars graced the walls, as KC and the Sunshine Band performed. Rachel Maddow tended at one bar, but looked a bit perplexed as Andrew Breitbart, the conservative Internet entrepreneur, said something about ACORN after she handed him his libation.
The heavy mix of political and show biz cultures is showing few signs of dissipating.
Milling about was Republican Scott Brown, the new Massachusetts senator, who spoke of meeting Ryan Seacrest and approvingly of an Improv show that has come to Boston, “You’re a Good Man, Scott Brown.” “Unbelievable,” he said, adding that yes, it is on its way to D.C.