The 3,000-Mile-Long Embrace
Politicians want glamour; stars want to be near power (and seem smart to boot). A brief history of how two opposite cultures started coming together for the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
The White House Correspondents' Association dinner -- not so long ago merely a cozy annual assemblage of journalists and the politicians and operatives who are their sources -- has now gone Hollywood to such an amusing extent that workaday D.C. is getting seriously squeezed. For much of the event's existence, the president was the undisputed guest of honor, and members of the entertainment industry such as Bob Hope and Milton Berle were solely called on to, well, entertain onstage.
Now, the proliferation of celebrity guests, from the A-list down to the huh?-list, is threatening to usurp the festivity. The evening, which gained beyond-the-Beltway buzz when host Stephen Colbert eviscerated the press and George W. Bush in 2006, has become so popular for its Hollywood-on-the-Potomac glitz that the actual reporters, news show producers and administration officials who have filled the Washington Hilton are starting to get crowded out. For the 98th iteration on April 28 -- at which Jimmy Kimmel will roast Barack Obama -- there have been 3,800 formal requests for spots in the 2,700-seat ballroom. "And that's not including all of the nonmember news organizations that want to attend," says WHCA president and Reuters correspondent Caren Bohan. The demand has come in part from media company bigwigs, who in the past wouldn't have bothered with an event run by and for their newsroom drudges, along with blue-chip advertisers who see an invite as one of the perks of being a client. Many established outlets that take 10 or more tables have lost a portion of their allotment this year -- NBC is down three, CNN at least two -- as more new-media outlets are invited. As one cable news exec grouses, "They have to give tables to bullshit.com."
What began as a mischievous lark -- the late writer Michael Kelly, then of The Baltimore Sun, inviting comely Iran-Contra moll Fawn Hall to be his date in 1987 -- has emerged as a conspicuous pursuit of refracted fame and sheer bragging rights. "There's always been this prurient curiosity about show business in Washington, and it's found its annual expression at this event," says New York columnist Frank Rich, an exec producer on HBO's Veep. For one giddily competitive evening sober-minded news outlets transform into celebrity wranglers intent on scoring the brightest stars to sit at their tables (first-class tickets and comped stay at the historic Hay-Adams hotel included, of course). "It started with these footnotes to the news and then became something much larger," says Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek veteran now with Bloomberg who took Bulworth-promoting Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in 1998, the same year Bill Clinton was forced to share the ballroom with conservative magazine Insight's stunt date Paula Jones. "Having been to the Academy Awards, you're used to seeing famous faces," says eco advocate Laurie David, who famously got into a row with Karl Rove when she attended in 2007. "This is that on acid. It's such a cross-blend."
Although the '90s saw the attendance of the likes of Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, the past decade has experienced a significant amplification of star wattage, with an extra jolt provided by Obama's 2008 win. "I had agents and managers calling. So-and-so wanted to come. 'Would you host them?' And then some would hold out for a better offer," says Emily Lenzner, then ABC's executive director of communications and now managing director at strategic communications firm SKDKnickerbocker.
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, People's Washington bureau chief, remembers of 2009: "His first year was the most star-studded it got. I brought Sting and Trudie Styler and escorted them to the VIP area to meet the president. They were waiting while everyone -- Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes -- was swarming. Sting said, 'I know people have done this to me, but I've never done this for someone else.' "
Correspondents sometimes personally invite celebrity friends. (ABC's George Stephanopoulos has brought buddy Jon Bon Jovi multiple times.) But the enterprise has become too important not to outsource to professional bookers, who spend months, often beginning in January, strategizing their "asks." During a Republican administration, athletes are favored. In an election year, potential vice presidential candidates are big gets. Some politically oriented megastars, like George Clooney, are always in demand (he'll be seated with Time this year). Of-the-moment newsmakers, like Rush Limbaugh target and invitation hunter Sandra Fluke -- who found a suitor in The Huffington Post -- carry on the tradition, established with Hall, of adding a dollop of irreverent infamy to the mix.
The biggest names do bring benefits: most crucially, proximity to the president. Some bookers are convinced that the WHCA, which requires guest lists weeks in advance, gives prime positions to tables with well-known faces to ensure C-SPAN close-ups. (The association denies this.) What to do if you're a more obscure outlet in need of a status-bestowing date? Says one vet: "If all else fails, you can always call the Creative Coalition" -- the nonpartisan entertainment industry nonprofit run by Dana Delany -- "to get assigned a loaner celeb for the day."
Another benefit is perceived access to the reigning afterparty, Bloomberg and Vanity Fair's co-sponsored soiree at the French ambassador's residence. "People think it'll help them get in," says a Beltway insider. "The VIP guests will say, 'They're with me.' " (THR will inaugurate its own fete with a Google-partnered bash the night before the WHCA dinner at The W Hotel.)
Funnily enough, the Hollywood types go expecting elevated discourse, while the Washington insiders desire anything but. Desperate Housewives showrunner Marc Cherry, who attended in 2007, says with a laugh: "I always wanted to talk public policy, and they wanted to talk about who [Eva Longoria's character] Gabrielle was sleeping with."
Who's Sitting With Which Media Outlet at the Washington Hilton This Year
- Elizabeth Banks: Hot off hit The Hunger Games and a star of Oliver Stone's W., she's a get for ABC News.
- Darren Criss: Glee's phenom provides a youth jolt for The Huffington Post, which also has Dakota Fanning.
- Claire Danes: Viacom synergy: The star of Showtime's Homeland keeps it in the corporate family with CBS News.
- Paul Rudd: Seated with ABC News again. He has developed a bromance with reporter Jake Tapper.
- Rosario Dawson: The Voto Latino co-founder sexes up the otherwise staid Atlantic Media table.
- Viola Davis: Seated with Newsweek/Daily Beast, she next stars in a biopic about late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan.