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Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), hosted by The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, and its many pre- and afterparties were going to be smaller than in years past whether President Donald Trump was planning to show up or not.
But even those who have no interest in rubbing elbows with the current administration can’t deny that it feels “a bit pouty” that POTUS and his entire staff are snubbing the nearly century-old tradition that honors journalists and their profession.
“I’ve heard nothing about the actual WHCD. Nobody wants to come,” says Elizabeth Thorp, editor in chief of PYPO.com (“like Funny or Die meets Vice, but for women”) and former editor of glossy D.C.-lifestyle rag Capital File. “Obama was beloved, but the current administration … they’re doing a disservice to themselves by not going. Listen, there are things you have to do when you’re the leader of the free world that are really hard, like show up to a dinner where you get teased. But he can’t handle it. He’ll stay up all night and tweet about it.”
Tammy Haddad, president and CEO of Haddad Media and a consultant on Veep, will still host her annual brunch the morning before the main event, but it will be “a much more intimate event this year to reflect what’s going on in our country and at the dinner,” she says. And while there will still be a few stars in attendance — like Matt Walsh and Alan Ruck, “there’s more of a focus on journalism,” says Haddad, “which is a complete turnaround from previous years where people were looking for Hollywood celebs.”
As D.C. power players struggle with how to react in the new political environment, much of Hollywood seems to have made up its mind. Eric Podwall, a talent manager who’s attended the last eight WHCDs and hosted private dinners for his visiting clients and friends (including Matthew Morrison, Miles Teller, Tony Romo, Sophie Turner and JC Chasez) for the past three, says that he didn’t even consider attending this year. “We need to be supporting journalists more than ever, but we’re sitting it out this year. I probably wouldn’t be saying that if Mitt Romney [were in the White House]. But with the current political climate, it’s just not palatable to be in D.C.”
Todd Hawkins, whose company, Hawkins Mikita, advises clients like Jesse Tyler Ferguson on philanthropic and advocacy work, says that there was a precipitous drop in interest in the event even before Trump announced he’d be boycotting it. “Trump’s presence in D.C. has soured people’s inclination to show up,” says Hawkins. “My clients may be supporting the resistance from afar, but they don’t want to participate because they don’t want to appear that they’re even silently condoning the way he’s treated the press. There’s just nothing appealing about being in D.C. right now.”
Hawkins adds that WHCD malaise isn’t simply partisan. “When Bush was president, there was still buzz. Celebrities with opposing views still went. But there’s just no excitement this year,” he says. “Over the last eight years, the Obama administration had made a significant connection with the entertainment community, and they came out to support him in force. But that’s just not going to happen with Trump. It’s a disappointment.”
He adds, however, that there’s no better time for stars to speak up for what they believe in. “We’re advising our clients to use their voices now to get involved. Use your platform to spend a day on Capitol Hill advocating for the causes you believe in. Think ‘What can we do as a community to support the factions that are being attacked?'”
One star-fueled organization that hasn’t backed down is The Creative Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for arts endowments. “Somehow funding for the arts became a political football,” says CEO Robin Bronk incredulously. “But it’s not. It’s a right of the citizenry. Arts are a tentpole in what makes America great.”
The day before the WHCD, Bronk and Creative Coalition president Tim Daly will lead a brigade of actors (including Keegan-Michael Key, Alyssa Milano, Chad Lowe, Walsh and many more) to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and underscore the importance of funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
“None of us can afford to pack up our toys and go home,” says Bronk. “You have to be there when the going gets tough — that’s what makes a worthy advocate. As much as The Creative Coalition is an organization of activists who also happen to be actors, writers, producers and directors, what we’re not is red carpet-baggers. We’re here for the battle and we’re here for the war.”
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