This Is Why Everyone Hates the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 29 2013 8:56 AM

A Few Notes From the Most-Hated Washington Party of the Year

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Comedian Conan O'Brien delivers a comedy routine during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 27, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images

Look: Obviously the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, or #WHCD, is a parody of a parody of a parody of itself. Mocking it is a rite of passage for any pundit or reporter or politician. Parties that must cost $1 million, once all the sponsorships are calculated, are thrown to raise awareness for a charity that may raise $150,000 that night. It's so deliciously hate-able that even Sarah Palin, a formerly important politician who hit the pre-dinner garden brunch and the post-dinner MSNBC Party in 2011, half-assedly rouses her followers by condemning the spectacle.

Too easy. Yes, the WHCD is an embarrassing spectacle. But it's a populist spectacle, if we're grading on a scale. Tourists are allowed to line the streets and the halls of the hotel, closer than they'd get at a presidential rally (with less security), possibly closer than they'd get at an awards show. Youngish reporters and staffers, early-20s types working their first or second job in the city, get to meet high-level reporters and members of Congress. People roll cigars for them (MSNBC party) or serve them waffles (National Journal's Friday night party) or let them order anything from the bar up to $12 (BuzzFeed party). Whether they embarrass themselves is a pure question of free will.

Anyway, I've been going to the parties around the dinner (not the dinner itself) since 2010, when I was first legitimately invited to them. (In other words, I've run a circuit similar to Palin's: neither of us even pretended to patronize the charity event.) This was my 2013 experience, edited to redact embarrassing things that happened to people who have feelings.

- PSY, the balladeer behind "Gangnam Style" and "Gentleman," arrived as a guest of CBS News, then grew tired of people mobbing him for photos. His handlers found shelter in the space behind a curtain at the Atlantic/National Journal party, and held him there, a six-foot wall of Korean body men serving as a bulwark between photobombers.

"Can ... I get a photo?" I asked one handler. (This is how anyone should react when real effort has been made to block a camera.

"Not now," said my mole. "Wait. Wait. OK."—PSY was no longer paying attention—"You can do it now."

photo (16)

- Every D.C. party of some size and legitimacy is plagued by the Person of Interest Glance. You're talking to someone, and his/her eyes (or your eyes—you're not perfect) wander in the hope that somebody more famous or interesting might be nearby. From the celebrity's perspective, this looks like hell—so many eyes, so many possible awkward conversations with socially maladjusted drunks. It must have been easier before cellphone cameras. PSY wasn't the only star who arrived in D.C. and took pains only to talk to friends or important people. For hours, Ian McKellen formed a power circle with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) and the guy who plays Artie on Glee. Anyone going in for a photo was given the hairy eyeball by a bodyguard; a friend of mine who tried to shake McKellen's hand got a polite grimace and a brush-off. Patrick Stewart was apparently kinder, but declined photos because he didn't want to start everyone thinking they could just walk up to him and get one. Fred Armisen, however, was friendly and happy to talk about comedy, and no one was as snappish as Sean Penn, who (reportedly) once broke an iPhone after he saw it taking a surreptitious photo. Vanity Fair cameras only, thanks.

- Sean Eldridge, gay marriage activist and husband of The New Republic editor/owner Chris Hughes, made the rounds at TNR's own party and the Atlantic/National Journal shindig, just to name the two times I saw him. He's formed an exploratory committee for a 2014 congressional bid in his Hudson Valley seat; he could be seen, fittingly enough, talking with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Dan Maffei and other possible future colleagues who liked the idea of taking back what had been Kirsten Gillibrand's seat before she was appointed to the U.S. Senate. I ran into Gillibrand herself, and got a quick lesson on the partisan breakdown of the new district ("more Democratic than it used to be") and the cultural issues that any Democrat would need to navigate ("a rich hunting culture").

- National Review and The Nation co-sponsored a party in one of the Hilton suites, and served a "purple cocktail" consisting of Grey Goose, Blue Curacao, grenadine, pineapple juice, lime juice, and a blueberry garnish. It tasted like a yacht party during spring break in Daytona Beach. I spent most of my time there with Rep. Ed Royce, just off a successful hearing on Chechen radicalization and full of questions about the degree to which radicals wanted to build a caliphate in the region.

- I had more than one conversation with a spokesperson that got into the ego-bruising subject of "who actually asks questions that elicit answers." By general agreement, the producers for networks that you don't often see on TV—people like CNN's Deirdre Walsh and CBS's Jill Jackson—were the best at digging in and blowing up talking points.

- BuzzFeed didn't waste anybody's time with WHCD coverage, but did host a parallel party-watching party for guests who couldn't make the dinner. The origins of this party were misunderstood. BuzzFeed didn't fail to score a table. It lost its White House correspondent, Zeke Miller, right before the cut-off, and it replaced him with someone—the great Evan McMorris-Santoro—who wasn't a member of the Association. Jose Canseco, who'd promised on Twitter that he'd join BuzzFeed in D.C., never made it out. Didn't matter—BuzzFeed's party made its own news, attracting a live C-SPAN camera that filmed the queues outside Jack Rose Saloon. When this appeared onscreen in the bar, on TVs flanked by hundreds of whiskey bottles, the room of 20-and-30-somethings cheered their success.

- Sarah Palin wasn't there, but Christine O'Donnell was, in what appeared to be a wedding dress, with friends dressed as bridesmaids, all of whom worked the MSNBC party until after the bar was packed up. Writing that, I now see why people fill with rage when they consider this event.

But think of all the journalism it produces! Just hours after it published a Heathers-ish piece about Mark Leibovich and his unbecoming habit of writing about D.C. ego monsters, Politico exploded with WHCD content. Mike Allen, the co-author of that Leibovich piece, wore a fishbowl lens head-camera on the red carpet and produced a shaky video that largely consisted of him waiting for a famous person to get her photo taken so he could move on. There was a bumper crop of breaking news that read funny if only because it stuck to the just-the-facts inverted pyramid style. Example:

"The president was certainly 10 times funnier than Conan O’Brien," John Shaw, the CEO of the Natural Products Association, said, summing up the feeling of many.

It's an odious tradition, yes, but it's ours.

Correction, April 29, 2013: This post originally misspelled Ian McKellen and Mark Leibovich's last names, and misidentified CBS producer Jill Jackson as Jill Jacobs.

David Weigel is a former Slate political reporter. 

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