By the time the Washington press corps struggled into the Washington Hilton for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, we were pretty bedraggled.
So much news. There was the Obama puppy; the White House vegetable garden; Michelle’s arms; Barack’s chest, his hot dog, his mustard; and to cap it all, the knife-edge issue of whether Miss California would keep her crown. One suspects the Supreme Court was ready for an expedited hearing on that one.
So 2,600-plus journalists (most of who have never been near the White House) and guests, after many fights over tickets, struggled into the crowded confines of the Hilton to drink too much, fawn over actors and other celebrities, and talk on a leveled playing field with cabinet secretaries and service chiefs.
Make no mistake, this is the big one in Washington: the must-be-seen-at event.
This is Washington’s Oscar Night. Every year, many news organizations throw elaborate before and after parties. Organizations that value their dignity–like The Washington Post and The New York Times–or those, as so many are, that are in bankruptcy, do not throw parties. But ABC, Atlantic Media, Bloomberg, Business Week, CBS, CNN, Congressional Quarterly, Newsweek, Time and Reuters all vied to give the working press the works. The press drank deeply.
Of course, not all those enjoying the largesse of the publishers had tickets to the dinner. Many jumped into dinner suits or evening gowns (show lots of skin, darling) and enjoyed the cocktails and the celebrity-watching, before going home to see the show on television.
Actually, these crashers are smart and necessary. They fill the cocktail parties, so the hosts feel loved; they meet their friends, schmooze and scram before they make fools of themselves. They also are spared the pitched battle for tickets that precedes the dinner every year.
It is a battle between those with the big bucks and swagger, like the television networks, and those who actually write or broadcast about the White House. It is an unseemly struggle. The big outfits want as many as eight tables of 10, whereas many smaller outfits, like Human Events, do not pass the glamour test. Even Barron’s complains.
I used to fight to get one table. Now, I settle for four seats for my wife and myself and two friends. But every year, trade associations, lobbyists and journalists, who are not members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, implore me to get them in. I have started to affect hearing loss.
Year after year, the drill is the same. An inebriated audience listens to the president making jokes, usually at his own expense, then a comedian, chosen exclusively by the president of the association, tries to better the president and the effects of the liquor on the revelers.
Comedian Drew Carey, who can handle just about any audience, from Las Vegas to “The Price Is Right,” told me that the WHCA dinner was the one that had made him the most nervous of any standup engagement, and that he thought it was a difficult audience.
One year, Laura Bush stole the show when she spoofed her husband. In other years, George W. Bush stole the show with his self-mockery.
This year, Obama was funny but not uproarious.
Things were headed down the predictable slippery slope of after-dinner festivities when Wanda Sykes, the comedian known for her acerbic and sometimes blue humor, intimated that she would not shed a tear if Rush Limbaugh went to the great studio in the sky.
This did not cause supporters of Rush to walk out en masse. On Monday Fox News, which was well represented at the dinner and had Todd Palin as their prized guest, decided that a sacrilege had been committed against the sainted Rush. Led by Bill O’Reilly, Fox wanted an apology for the keeper of the conservative covenant. Their indignation was right up there with, you know, the Obama puppy, the White House vegetable garden, Michelle’s arms and Barack’s torso.
For those of us who are not in the small space to the right of Fox News, a vulgar comedian made an unfunny joke about a vulgar broadcaster. We should concentrate on the big stuff, like Miss California and her political philosophy.