stop the presses

Everybody Used to Be In On the Same Joke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Photo: Tom Brenner/REUTERS

I was at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night — pushing rubbery food around my plate while President Biden admonished that “American democracy is not a reality show.” Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd was aflutter at the presence, once again, of Kim Kardashian. You’d think after four years of Donald Trump, they might want to move on from reality-TV stars. But they don’t. Kardashian was the biggest star on hand by far — the person who gave the night its sense of relevance and irrelevance all at once. In a formerly bipartisan orgy of self-regard that almost entirely lacked for real Republicans — even the RINO herd was pretty thin — Kardashian might have been the most bipartisan person there.

The dinner is about a century old, but its current incarnation dates back to 1987. That’s when Michael Kelly, then a star reporter for the Baltimore Sun, arrived at the dinner with Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s sphinxy secretary. She’d been granted immunity from prosecution for helping North cover up the Iran-Contra affair but supposedly wasn’t speaking to reporters, then showed up with one. The town went nuts. “My favorite thing of the evening was watching a crowd of allegedly hard-bitten newsmen line up to get Fawn Hall’s autograph,” the late Kelly said at the time.

Hall set a precedent. The dinner had to have star power. An arms race soon began. Movie stars started getting invited — and showing up. Vanity Fair threw a big party. Fawn Hall’s appearance also set another precedent: Everyone should be in on the joke. Journalism, celebrity, money, and politics — it’s all a big fun circus, right? Remember how well Donald Trump, then-star of The Apprentice, took a gentle ribbing by President Obama back in 2011?

It turned out that the Obama years were the Hollywood high-water mark. Then Trump lumbered into town. Because he couldn’t risk being made fun of, or being considered too cozy with a group he’d labeled the enemies of the people, he stayed away, too. The dinner changed, and so too did the very idea of Washington. It became something brummagem, a graspy and undignified place where the most low rent, idiotic people in the land could get their paws on the levers of power. Washington is one big reflecting pool, always refracting the values and the demons of whichever man happens to be occupying the Oval. Could Biden, who is always waxing poetic with his gauzy, sepia-toned memories of when Washington seemed like a grand place, tap into any of the old gravitas encased deep inside all this white marble? Would any real movie stars return? Or will this weekend forevermore be just one big riot for blue-check nobodies? I hit all the best parties with my notepad to find out.

’Twas the night before the big dinner, and the Smiths were stirring. Ben Smith and Justin Smith were throwing a party for their new publication, cryptically called Semafor. It was at Justin’s manse, which was once inhabited by Senator Fulbright. The party was CEO soup: There was Meredith Kopit Levien (CEO, NYT) and Jim Bankoff (CEO, Vox Media, which owns the magazine whose website you’re reading) and Mathias Dopfner (CEO, Axel Springer). Dopfner’s a six-foot-seven Teutonic Titan who just bought Politico for a billion bucks. This was his first Correspondents’ Dinner weekend. “It’s much more fun than being in Berlin these days,” he said.

White House official Neera Tanden was there, but she wouldn’t give me a quote. (Sadly, it seemed she’d finally learned her lesson about talking smack.) Neither would Mar-a-Lago’s Renfield Jason Miller. I was just trying to figure out what exactly Semafor is. Maybe Axios’ Mike Allen would know. “It means ‘signal’ in every language,” he explained. (Come to think of it, I don’t even know what axios means.) What does Politico’s John Harris think Semafor is? Seems he just found out. “I don’t know,” he said. “We were just talking about it. It means ‘signal.’” I quickly signaled an Uber to the next party.

On to the United Talent Agency shindig. That was at Fiola Mare, a Eurotrashy Georgetown restaurant with Potomac River views. Agent Jay Sures, who represents half of Washington by now, was holding court with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. In the back of the restaurant, a roomful of legacy, linear CNN anchors was getting properly peloothered with their new boss, Chris Licht. Trying not to tread on Don Lemon’s Loro Piana shoes, I asked why can’t he just bro it out and patch things up with ex-BFF Chris Cuomo already. He raised his hands, shook his head, and began humming along to “Bustin’ Loose,” which was blaring.

The battered center-left Establishment sure was desperate to bust loose and pretend like everyone was still in on the same joke despite the gathering portents of doom: Biden’s approval ratings, the coming midterm shellacking, Elon Musk buying Twitter to unleash the free-speech hounds. So, Jen Psaki, doesn’t it feel like you’re dancing on the deck of the Titanic? “No way,” she told me. “This feels like we’re celebrating journalism. We’re celebrating a free press, something that didn’t happen for many years, so it feels foreign to people. And a lot of people who haven’t seen each other in years are catching up, and that’s all a good thing.” I try not to drink too much that night, as I had a long day of celebrating journalism ahead of me the next day.

Saturday began with the garden brunch hosted by Tammy Haddad, the social arbiter who throws this party each year at the Georgetown hacienda once owned by Kay Graham. (It is now owned by somebody called Mark Ein.) Two Secret Service SUVs were getting into a fender-bender on the tight street outside while I followed into the party a familiar-looking bald man who turned out to be the Bronx rapper Fat Joe. What the hell was he doing there? “Fat Joe, you know, he wants to come and mix with the correspondents, he wants to see how journalism works from the inside out,” said Haddad. Is she a Fat Joe fan? “Isn’t everyone?” she asked. What’s her favorite Fat Joe song? “Um, I’m going to send you over to my press people,” she said, laughing. Lean back! Lean back! 

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for White House Correspondents Insider

Out back, crab cakes and Kirsten Gillibrand were baking in the sun. Mayor Pete and his nemesis Amy Klobuchar circulated, at a safe distance. Gayle King yukked it up with Psaki. Also, Dr. Fauci was there, schmoozing without a mask, which was confusing, since he pulled out of the dinner happening later that night over his alleged COVID concerns. Oh, look, it’s Brooke Shields, wearing not Calvin Klein but a white get-up designed by her fellow model, Helena Christensen. “I haven’t been here since Daddy Bush,” she said, referring to 41. Has it changed much? “It has, tremendously.” But she couldn’t quite say how.

I finally got to the Correspondents’ Dinner and immediately noticed there was barely any wine and no liquor at my table. I grabbed my colleague, and we asked a Secret Service agent if there was enough time before the president’s arrival to sneak out for a smoke. He turned to his fellow agent and asked for an updated ETA on “Celtic,” which is Biden’s cute Secret Service name.

People seemed to like Trevor Noah’s routine but were also confused by it because he kept saying there were so many people “in the house” who, notably, were not in the house. He looked into the crowd and said, “I see you, Ron DeSantis. What’s going on baby?” but he did not, in fact, see DeSantis. Noah said, “How about the New York Times, also here! Man, can I just say, New York Times, I did not realize how much you guys like to party.” Actually, they don’t like to party. They stopped attending this one in 2008. Noah tried cracking wise about how fact-checkers are now out of work but clearly he needs to hire a few himself.

All weekend, I was on the prowl for a maniacal quote from a real, red-blooded Republican, but if there were any actual Republicans partying, I didn’t see them. It was just another example of how things had changed. They weren’t all in on the same joke anymore. Now, it’s just the Democratic machine clanging away in here. When Noah dinged MSNBC for its sycophancy, there was a lot of wincing.

There are things to be learned from these dinners about presidents. Yes, the speeches are written by other people, but truth can be gleaned from delivery. Bill Clinton with all his cacoëthes acted like he was on trial, getting defensive during his Correspondents’ Dinner. Obama would blow cigarette smoke in the faces of Biden and Hillary Clinton because everybody knew he was cooler than they would ever be and they were lucky to be able to sit at his lunch table. Trump has no sense of humor about himself, so he didn’t show up, tweeting insults at his enemies from in front of his TV. As for Biden? The remarks were much like the man — good spirited but boring, delivered with maybe a bit more wobble than you’d like to see in your commander-in-chief.

The most sought after after-party was at the French ambassador’s residence. Just days ago, Emmanuel Macron had triumphed over Marine Le Pen, who would have let Putin be Putin. NATO and transatlanticism and neoliberalism survived. And so Secretary of State Tony Blinken was here with other members of the Biden inner circle — Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon and the president’s grandaughter Naomi Biden as well as First Daughter Ashley Biden. This is where Graydon Carter used to have his Vanity Fair parties, financed by Michael Bloomberg. The new VF has retrenched, but nature abhors a vacuum and the Swamp does, too. So, Paramount, for some reason, stepped up to fill the void. But it wasn’t the same. One person who used to work for Carter sniffed that Graydon would not have approved of the lighting at this party. And everybody there could use the glow-up. Gone were the movie stars and bowls of loose cigarettes that used to sit on high-top tables.

Someone who was definitely having fun was Evan Mock, the pink-headed Hawaiian hottie skater model boy from Gossip Girl, whose bisexual character on the show — relevancy alert! — has a father modeled after Rupert Murdoch. “What’s up, bitches?!” he said, strolling into the room. It was his very first time in our nation’s capital. He told me he felt out of place but that he liked it. There was one thing he was trying to figure out, though. He looked around at the oil paintings taken from the walls of Versailles and peered past a room where President Eisenhower once supped with Charles de Gaulle. And then asked, “Whose house is this?”

Earlier in the day, post-Haddad brunch, I’d dropped in on Sally Quinn. She was eating blueberries in the kitchen of her Federal mansion, built in 1793, back when George Washington was president. I helped myself to a bottle of Pinot Grigio while she explained that the dinner still holds value for journalists trying to meet face-to-face with sources to grease them up a bit in the hope it helps get their calls returned. And on the business side of the business of journalism, it’s a good place to take advertisers out for a schmooze, dazzle them a bit.

But somewhere along the line, “It’s just turned into this grotesque scene that’s so celebrity-oriented, that has almost nothing to do with journalism,” said Quinn. She and her late husband, Ben Bradlee, stopped going years before his death in 2014. “Ben would always say, ‘Let’s go to the country instead,’ but the Washington Post would say, ‘Ben, you have to come! The advertisers want to meet you!’”

She continued: “ We were at a cocktail party at the Post one year, and we were absolutely imprisoned in this celebrity scrum with the Kardashians” — yes, Kim has been here before, first under Obama in 2010 — “and Newt and Callista Gingrich. There was no escape, and everybody was jostling, and somebody pushed Callista Gingrich. She backed into me with her hair — it was like an iron helmet, and it almost broke my nose. Ben turned to me and said, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’” Quinn added, “I think that ABC inviting Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson is creeping into the danger zone. That’s how it all ended up being such a zoo, and why the New York Times first dropped out.”

But the rest of us were there. And didn’t have such a bad time.

Everybody Isn’t In On the (Same) Joke in D.C. Anymore