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Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj might not have been far off when he told the crowd in the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” For better or worse, the gala has been an annual self-congratulatory gathering of the three disparate, but often overlapping, tribes who define much of American culture — politicians (D.C. celebrities), the reporters who cover them (cable news celebrities) and Hollywood stars (actual celebrities), a collision of buzz and branding that has bloated the “nerd prom” into a constellation of soirees, brunches and mixers that in recent years felt akin to a wonky Academy Awards. But as Washington has become a place where no one wants to come together on anything, that old notion of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has felt as outmoded and extinct as bipartisan tax reform or polite political discussions around the Thanksgiving table.
The first casualty of the political cultural dysfunction was the dais: President Donald Trump announced in February (via Twitter, of course) that unlike his 15 predecessors, going back to Calvin Coolidge who attended the very first dinner in 1924, he would be skipping and, reportedly, had discouraged members of his administration from going to it and associated parties. Washingtonians have been cooler toward Trump, a man that most of them did not vote for, and who regularly leaves the city on weekends for his resort in Florida. The second casualty was the VIP lists: As much as the (real) celebrities flocked to D.C. for a chance to be in the same room as former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, fewer want to be in D.C. under Trump (and fewer press outlets were trying to lure them), significantly dimming the movie and TV star power.
“I think it’s less Hollywood this year, but you know, it ebbs,” said Greta Van Susteren at Friday night’s Creative Coalition party at the Georgetown restaurant Flavio. The cable host, who earlier this year moved to MSNBC after a long run at Fox News, was unfazed by the perception that 2017 was a down year, even as she rattled off the A-list guests she’d wrangled for past events, including Lindsay Lohan and Ozzy Osbourne, back when his MTV reality show was a huge hit. This year, she decided to skip the dinner itself.
While the paparazzi posted outside made do with the TV stars who came to support arts funding — among them Prison Break‘s Sarah Wayne Callies, Mistresses‘ Alyssa Milano and Veep‘s Matt Walsh — passersby were star-struck, even if they couldn’t quite figure out who they were star struck for. “Who are these people?” one woman asked her husband.
At the restaurant next door, a group of high school students celebrating their own, real prom took in the chaotic scene. Aided by a reporter’s handy celebrity face-book, one floppy-haired teen was able to recognized Callies but couldn’t place her name. Another member of the prom group, seemingly unprompted, announced, “I want to smoke a blunt.”
Rituals are rituals, and as the weekend wore on, a pervasive feeling sank in that an era had ended and the various factions had retreated to their respective corners. Trump left town altogether to celebrate his first 100 days in office in front of a crowd of supporters at a farm expo center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and gave no indication of an impending rapprochement with the press. He had nothing but negative things to say about the media in a speech that some thought was planned to make the dolled-up media in Washington look, by contrast, exceedingly self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Never one for subtlety, Trump predicted the dinner would be “very, very boring,” and he was proven largely correct. The night’s program was slow and steady as always, mixing together announcements and awards with Why-Journalism-Is-Important speeches. It didn’t feel like an event that really needed to be aired on TV, which it mostly wasn’t.
Walking through a crowded hallway at the Washington Hilton later that night, making his way to the ballroom from a pre-dinner reception held by The Washington Post, Democratic Party chair Tom Perez insisted that his attendance was non-partisan support for journalism. But with the president bashing the media as the “enemy of the people,” it was a tough notion to hold up. “The media is the fourth branch of government. You know, when you start to try to undermine the media, that’s exactly what Stalinist Russia did, and what other totalitarian regimes do,” he said.
“I guess the big question is: Will this weekend be a transition point for media?” asked Tammy Haddad, a former MSNBC producer who throws a famed Garden Brunch and has been one of the biggest boosters of the weekend. “Will the president feel like by not coming to this dinner and telling the whole world that, that he’s done enough and he’ll turn a corner and work more closely with journalists? Check that box and move on.”
There was a common belief in D.C. that President Trump would ultimately come to regret his absence. CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, whose profile has risen as he’s taken on the president and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in several share-worthy moments, called Trump’s absence a missed opportunity. “Tomorrow they’ll say, ‘You know, I think we should have done this,'” he said before stepping into Haddad’s brunch.
Soon after, Valerie Jarrett, who became a fixture on the social scene while she served as one of Obama’s closest White House advisers, arrived with her daughter Laurie Jarrett, a CNN reporter who covers the Justice Department, and delighted in her “ex” status. When asked by a journalist for a video interview, she told him, “It depends on what the question is. Now I don’t have to talk to the press! It’s so nice!”
Washingtonians are, if nothing else, adept at spinning, and some made clear-headed cases — for directly opposing reasons — for why Trump’s absence might actually be a good thing. “I mean there are a lot of people who for a long time have had issues with this dinner and thought it showed people cozying up to power too much. And you know, maybe this will slap that out a bit,” said CNN anchor Jake Tapper, shortly after the taping of Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” Full Frontal special for TBS. “Maybe with fewer celebrities and fewer cozying up, maybe this is a step in the right direction. Maybe this all shakes out in a way that’s good for journalism at the end.”
It was clear that even if the importance of what happens at the Hilton is on the wane, D.C. abhors a power vacuum, and there are plenty eager to fill the void. On Friday night, even as most Trump administration members stayed away, there was a show of force for “official” Washington at a reception and dinner at the home of Atlantic Media owner David Bradley and his wife Katherine Brittain Bradley. The event was positioned as “nonpolitical,” and attendees included Defense Secretary James Mattis as well as senators from both political parties, while billionaire Richard Branson, wearing a brown velvet jacket, could be seen holding court In the elegant home’s formal living room, nursing an ice water infused with lime as guests flocked to him and his tremendous mane.
If there was truly a “resistance” to President Trump and his administration over the weekend, it centered on Bee’s special, whose taping Saturday afternoon at DAR Constitution Hall was the must-attend event for the left-leaning Hollywood creative set. While smoking a cigarette on the building’s veranda before the taping, Search Party actress Alia Shawkat decried Trump’s apparent distaste for the arts and proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. “It makes me sad that he obviously doesn’t have any art in his life, except a painting of himself that he jerks off to,”she said. “But yeah, I honestly think it’s really sad that he has no sense of humor, and I think that’s the key to having a happy life, honestly.”
Later that night, an afterparty held for the taping at the elegant W Hotel in downtown D.C. had the feeling of a victory party. During the taping, the more vicious Bee got in her take-downs of the Trump administration and Jeff Zucker’s CNN, the more her audience roared. Celebrities, including Will Ferrell, who had earlier reprised his George W. Bush impression as the show’s special guest (“Howdya like me now?” he began the bit), mingled with Washingtonians who were happy to be in the presence of real live Hollywood people. Elvis Costello played a show and guests swayed along, buoyed by drinks with names like “The Bad Hombre” and “The Nasty Woman.” Full Frontal showrunner Jo Miller pronounced herself pleased when asked how the day had gone. “Fuck yeah, very happy,” she said.
The crowd seemed uninterested in and unfazed by the fact that the Correspondents’ Dinner was taking place at the same time, as if the event that had brought this whole circus to town was almost beside the point. And, in truth, it finally was.
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