WASHINGTON — Conan O’Brien headlines this year’s White House Correspondents Assn. dinner on Saturday, which is probably fitting because his brand of sometimes off-the-wall humor reflects the occasional tone of the weekend in Washington itself.
The WHCA dinner and the events surrounding it are often a surreal mixture of the superficial and the serious, where the chances are great that the Kardashians will meet Donald Rumsfeld (in show biz phrasing). As he has in the previous four years of his presidency, President Obama also will appear with riffs, with his comedic remarks carried live on CNN and C-Span.
The reason that many stars are here is that many of them are invited, as media outlets compete to fill their tables with A-listers, cabinet secretaries and tabloid figures. It is a tradition that extends at least to the late-1980s, when journalist Michael Kelly invited Iran-Contra figure Fawn Hall to sit at his table and she accepted.
The practice is no longer to get the most notorious, but to also feature celebrities who happen to be part of a media entity’s lineup, or soon to be. Cast members of “Modern Family,” “Nashville” and “Scandal” are sitting at ABC News’ table, for example. Others expected: Gerard Butler, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks as guests of CNN, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Newt Gingrich, the latter of whom is rumored to be talking to the network about signing up for a relaunch of “Crossfire.” Also expected: Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright from “House of Cards,” Claire Danes, Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, Michael Douglas, Michael J. Fox and Barbra Streisand, the latter which the Washington Post reported would be at the Bloomberg table.
Of course, the dinner is now just one aspect of a weekend of cocktail parties, dinners and branding opportunities, as media outlets and high-end consumer products firms take advantage of the attention. It may have reached its limits with plans by one marketing firm to introduce a gifting suite, offering celebrities all sorts of high end merchandise. The Correspondents Association, worried enough that the purpose of the dinner, to raise money for scholarships, has been overshadowed in the hoopla, sent a threatening legal letter asking the suite not to make it appear their event is sanctioned by the journalists’ org.
On Friday, Microsoft, Time and the MPAA are teaming up for a half-day Creativity Conference, with former President Bill Clinton the keynote speaker, and other participants scheduled to include Harvey Weinstein, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, director Benh Zeitlin and HBO’s Richard Plepler.
Early Friday evening, Time and People are hosting their annual gig at the St. Regis Hotel, a warm up act for a handful of events later in the evening. That includes the Atlantic-National Journal-OurTime Making News Party, being held at the nightspot The Powerhouse.
As they have in years past, The Creative Coalition has a presence with a Celebrate the Arts in America Dinner at Neyla, and Sharon Stone, Tracy Morgan, Kevin McHale, Tim Daly and Patricia Arquette among those expected.
In one of the few policy focused events of the weekend, on Saturday morning The Atlantic and National Journal are hosting a breakfast conversation with Rachel Maddow and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), on the state of American military power, with the Atlantic’s Steve Clemons moderating.
Twenty years ago, producer Tammy Haddad and her husband Ted Greenberg started a pre-dinner garden brunch at their home, and the tradition has grown to the point where it has outgrown its surroundings and is now at the Beall Washington House in Georgetown. The event is one of the few places where Fox News personas mix with MSNBC stars, and in recent years saw Rupert Murdoch sharing the stage with David Axelrod, as they promoted support for charity. This year, the fete benefits CURE Epilepsy and the Miss America Foundation.
The dinner itself, held in the Washington Hilton, is black tie and evening gown attire, and, even with the injection of Hollywood glitter, still rooted in Beltway establishment. So this year, Buzzfeed, the upstart news site, is having an alternative party, to be held at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon.
After that are a slew of after-parties, including the very exclusive Vanity Fair-Bloomberg event at the French Ambassador’s residence. As they did last year, MSNBC has a late night event at the Italian Embassy, where tradition has had host Rachel Maddow serve cocktails. Capitol File and the Bipartisan Policy Center are hosting an event at the equally impressive venue the Carnegie Library.
The events don’t end in the early hours of Sunday morning, but later in the afternoon, as press entities host brunches. Politico and Allbritton Communications host a brunch at the home of the site’s publisher, and Thomson Reuters and Yahoo have teamed for a brunch on the rooftop of the Hay-Adams Hotel. The latter has the added draw of food from some of Bravo’s Top Chef.