News Commentary


Politicos, Celebrities and Journalists Strut Their Stuff With the President

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WASHINGTON, D.C. ( -- The governing cliche of the White House Correspondents' Dinner, held May 1 at the Washington Hilton, is that it's a one-night-only event where the culture's set of shared
Photo: AP
'Tonight Show' host Jay Leno was unexpectedly scathing in his remarks.
assumptions about celebrity -- in particular, the relationship between the famous and those who celebrate them -- is inverted.

But score one for conventional wisdom, which every now and then gets it right. For proof, one only had to witness the packed hallways of the Hilton just before dinner. The crowd of well-wishers demanding snapshots with Internet gossip-and-links purveyor Matt Drudge -- outfitted for the occasion in a simple white hat he bragged cost $3.99 -- was substantially larger than those demanding snapshots with entertainer Wayne Newton. (Those convinced that Donald Trump has the most terrifying hair in the world would do well to avoid the improbable and elaborate structure that crowns Mr. Newton's skull.)

Famous for D.C.
That instance, and the night in full, indicates how this annual event is the triumph of what Ana Marie Cox of Capitol-centric blog calls Famous-for-D.C.: luminaries whose wattage is so specific and small-scale -- anchors of small-hours shows on news cable channels, for instance -- they'd not register in places inured to seeing, say, movie stars.

Still, some attendees wanted more. Early on, one party goer groused into his cell phone about how few famous people had showed: "All I've seen is Al Franken."

The Correspondents' dinner is a staged event of journalism world self-regard roughly equal to the National Magazine Awards, which will be held May 5 in New York; once, that is,

Photo: AP
Actor Ben Affleck, left, at the Correspondents' affair with Joyce Rumsfeld, center, wife of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, right.
you subtract most of the awards. In a notoriously partisan town, the Correspondents' dinner is an event where partisanship is expressed not through huzzahs for President George W. Bush or his presumptive opponent, Sen. John Kerry, but in cheers for favorite-son reporters when they took the dais or appeared on video screens. (There's the Washington Post's tables applauding for White House correspondent Mike Allen; there's the National Journal's table clapping for Carl Cannon.)

Ben Affleck
But the 2,000-plus crowd was not made up of only journalists. Partyers could hopscotch from hearing onetime presidential candidate Gov. Howard Dean wax impassioned about his plans to launch grass-roots organizing efforts in the Deep South to watching actor Ben Affleck moving about moodily much like, well, Ben Affleck.

(Oh, all right: Other celebrities spotted at the dinner or at the after-party thrown by Bloomberg News: Drew Barrymore, Serena Williams, Pvt. Jessica Lynch, Meg Ryan, Morgan Fairchild, American Idol-ite Clay Aiken, cast members of The Apprentice, and two waifsome forms -- rumored to be the Olsen Twins -- surrounded by enormous bodyguards. The Bush administration was well-represented by the president, the First Lady and several cabinet members including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.)

At the dinner, Tonight Show host Jay Leno astounded

Photo: AP
President George W. Bush has a laugh at a Jay Leno joke.
attendees by being unexpectedly scathing. He greeted the room with a shout-out to "esteemed members of the press -- and USA Today," which remains rocked by revelations that its former star reporter Jack Kelley fabricated stories. Mr. Leno went on to praise mogul-in-attendance Barry Diller for proving on shopping channel QVC one can "sell a lot of worthless crap" -- before apologizing for mistaking Mr. Diller for the president's chief strategist, Karl Rove. Elsewhere he mocked Geraldo Rivera's disclosure of American troop movements in Iraq by depicting the stunt-journalist in mock-newscasts over the years, divulging that the Trojan Horse was full of enemy soldiers, and telling Wold War II-era "viewers" he was standing in front of Holocaust victim Anne Frank's hideout -- a report he then offered to repeat in German.

Iowa concession screech
Somewhat inevitably, Mr. Leno parodied Gov. Dean's vein-popping Iowa concession speech, turning the former Vermont governor's now-infamous concluding screech into an ad resembling those from defunct electronics retailer Crazy Eddie. Gov. Dean cracked up at the ad -- and in doing so revealed that on his easily-reddened countenance exuberance often appears demonic. (It might have helped Gov. Dean's chances had voters known this, assuming they could stomach a president whose mirth routinely resembles mania.)

Other highlights:

  • Department of what-passed-for-partisan-rancor: Ubiquitous attendee and Democratic agitator Al Franken (Air America) mock-heckling Republican agitator John Podhoretz (New York Post) by threatening to tattle to the Post's "Page Six" should Mr. Podhoretz cut the lengthy, slow-moving line to the Bloomberg party.
    Mr. Podhoretz: "I am Page Six!"
    Mr. Franken: "You can't handle Page Six!"

  • Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman end-running an entire receiving line to enter Newsweek's pre-dinner reception -- an egregious offense of party etiquette ameliorated slightly by the fact he had Meg Ryan on one arm.

  • Geraldo Rivera's burgundy-tinted granny-glasses.

  • The endurance of star Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who showed up early, stayed very late and, unlike a good percentage of the crowd, was still sharp at night's end.

Bloomberg after-party
At the Bloomberg after-party drinks flowed till well past 2 a.m., and the next generation of Washington journalists -- among them Jennifer 8. Lee of The New York Times, Jeff Zeleny of the Chicago Tribune and Mr. Allen of the Post -- held court alongside veteran D.C. fixtures such as TV's John McLaughlin.

While it is difficult to recapture the mood and tone of a long, boozy party in the cruel light of day, one moment sticks out.

$10,000 political wager
In a scene that played out beside an impressive spread of desserts and candy, one D.C. pundit gave listeners her (or his) prediction for the upcoming presidential election -- right down to the percentages of the popular vote President Bush and presumptive nominee Sen. Kerry would get, and challenged those who disagreed to a $10,000 wager on the outcome.

"It's a finite amount of money," jested the pundit. (We think the pundit was jesting.)

As with the Franken/Podhoretz exchange, it was a night that repeatedly conjoined a willing audience, a mutual fascination with the game of politics, and many examples of what passes for machismo among the uncalloused hands of the journalistic elite. It's likely unfair to call out any one incident above many others, which is why the wagering pundit will remain anonymous.

Trust us on this, though: He (or she) is very Famous-for-D.C.

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Jon Fine is the media reporter of 'Advertising Age.'

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