With the White House Correspondents’ Dinner fast arriving on the Washington social calendar, the standard pose in the capital is one of detachment and disavowal: Sure, I’ll be going because, you know, you kinda have to, right? But it’s become such a drag, and it’s probably time, really, just to blow the whole thing up and start over.
This critique of the dinner has been building steadily for 30 years or more, as it grew from a straight celebration of the press to the frothy mix of power, fame and frivolity televised each spring from the massive 1960s-era ballroom of the Washington Hilton. It is too cozy with the influential people reporters are responsible for covering, the critique goes. It is too soaked in celebrity. The whole spectacle is too swollen and extravagant and irreverent, too far removed from the celebration of serious journalism and support for scholarships that is the dinner’s ostensible purpose.
Or at least it was. Come 2019, the image of the dinner as a celebrity-soaked extravagance suddenly feels like it comes from a different era. President Donald Trump announced that he will be skipping the dinner for the third year in a row, and then upped the ante by ordering his whole staff to boycott it. His newfound disdain for the dinner—an event he was only too happy to attend before becoming president—combined with the disdain many celebrities who once flocked to the event feel toward Trump have had an undeniable effect.
After a decade or more in which it built into a kind of fantasy weekend for political journalists—allowing a group drawn disproportionately from geeks and smart-alecks and clumsy kids picked last for dodgeball at last to sit at the cool kids’ table—the WHCD today is, at best, in a semi-flaccid state. People in the local economy of hotels, salons, limo companies, caterers and professional handlers report a marked drop in interest and spending among entertainment and business leaders in attending the dinner and the corresponding four-day marathon of parties that still surround it.
Veteran Washington social observers describe an unmistakable drop in the energy and allure of the dinner. “It certainly is not the glamour place to be in Washington anymore,” says writer and long-time Washington observer Sally Quinn. “What ignites something like this is to have celebrities from Hollywood and New York and the political celebrities from Washington, and when you don’t have either one, you’ve got 3,000 journalists staring at each other.”
This year, for the first time in its modern history, the dinner will not feature a professional entertainer. The White House Correspondents’ Association was besieged with criticism, including from some of its own members, after comedian Michelle Wolf’s sulphurous performance at the dinner last year. Her number included several raunchy bits and personal insults of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seated at the head table just a few feet away. This year, instead, the dinner will feature comments from historian Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton was the basis for the hit musical.
Surely Chernow’s commentary will be intelligent and illuminating. But glitzy seems like a stretch. It’s possible the White House Correspondents’ Dinner won’t even be the most glamorous thing on C-SPAN this weekend.
This week, as reporters and producers drag out their once-a-year tuxedos and gowns, journalists in the capital are facing a paradox, painful or amusing depending on one’s point of view: The dinner actually is transforming into the more subdued and earnest event that journalists have long claimed to desire. And as the evening becomes a dry professional awards ceremony, it’s Donald Trump, the most celebrity-oriented and raucously irreverent president in history, who can take much of the credit.
“It clearly is the toughest time in the history of the dinner,” says George Condon, a National Journal correspondent who led the White House Correspondents’ Association from 1993 to 1994 and is currently writing a history of the press organization. “You’ve never had a president of the United States openly hostile to the dinner,” he adds. “That affects everything else.”
Stan Rosenfield, a Hollywood publicist who represents several bold-faced names who have gone to the dinner in the past, such as George Clooney, Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman, says the dinner “is not the hot ticket it used to be.”
In years past, he says, “It would not be unusual for a client, not only ours but any of the major PR companies, to get five or six offers [from media organizations] to be their guest for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” Invitations have dried up, but so has interest: “I don’t know if any of them would want to go if they were invited.”
At one level, the change can be explained by the 2016 election, in which Trump replaced a president whom celebrities genuinely wanted to be near. “It was fun to go when Obama was in the White House,” said the Emmy-winning actress Julianna Margulies, who went to the dinner twice during his term. Now, she says, even if the president did attend, she’d skip it. “Trump just takes the wind out of everyone’s sails. He sucks up oxygen in a room. He doesn’t know how to make fun of himself, and there’s no way I would go and sit through a night of that.” For Hollywood celebrities, there’s also a downside risk to being at a Washington-associated event with the potential for a viral moment gone bad, says D.C. media consultant and connector Tammy Haddad, whose annual brunch is still a signature weekend event: “Non-Washington celebrities aren’t going to put themselves in a situation where they can get hit by social media, by national media or by politicians.”
Trump, after last year’s performance by Wolf, took to Twitter to lambast her “filthy” routine and called the dinner “an embarrassment to everyone associated with it.” He implored, “Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
What’s notable about the 2019 event is that the White House Correspondents’ Association has largely taken Trump’s advice. Olivier Knox, the current president of the association, says he has been talking about the need for the dinner to “reset” since 2016, when he took his place in line for this year’s presidency. He had grown increasingly disturbed by the celebrity gawking upstaging the organization’s commitment to journalism. “I thought we lost our way,” says Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM.
Trump, with his regular attacks on journalists and even the legitimacy of independent media, put longstanding tensions into even sharper relief, Knox says. “Would more people watch this on C-SPAN if Donald Trump was going to speak? Yeah, I bet they would.” On the other hand: “Let’s be clear that the administration curtailing White House press briefings, Pentagon briefings, State Department briefings, is considerably more serious than if the president’s attending the correspondents’ dinner.”
As for the choice of Chernow, Knox says the scholar sits “at an intersection of history and popular culture” and would be “someone who brought some heft to this conversation, while at the same time a lively speaker.”
However laudable, Knox’s effort to recalibrate the tenor of the dinner will likely prove transient, if the history of the past couple decades is any guide. The event has long swung pendulum-like between attempts to be edgy enough to be interesting and a more risk-averse approach, protecting the sensibilities of a crowd that typically enjoys irreverence toward the president and other politicians but is put off by anything suggesting contempt.
In 1999, Aretha Franklin sang at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and it was television anchor Brian Williams who delivered the repartée. After a year of sex scandal in Bill Clinton’s White House, and just weeks after he survived an impeachment trial, the idea of a professional comedian traversing this field of land mines seemed too exhausting.
In 2006, Stephen Colbert scorched President George W. Bush with a routine many thought went too far, his liberal-friendly irony striking a nasty note for the conservatives who occupied the role of punchline. That led the next year to a dud, as comedian Rich Little was exhumed from the 1970s to deliver a Grampa Simpson-like performance of impersonations that would have been passably funny three decades earlier.
The pendulum will surely swing back again. One likely scenario is that it will be swung by the same person who is shadowing this year’s event by his absence. Trump’s self-dramatizing instincts will surely encourage his eventual acceptance—an occasion that will draw even more interest because of his truancy in recent years.
For now, says former White House press secretary Sean Spicer: “I don’t think the president has ever found it worth his time. … He would have liked to have gone because it would have gotten a lot of attention, [but] it’s not really a productive use of time if you’re going and pretending everything is great. And I don’t think it furthers the cause of journalism by any stretch of the imagination.”
Spicer’s view is in convergence with that of one of the most acid sketch artists of capital culture in recent years. Mark Leibovich’s 2013 book, This Town, excoriated precisely the sort of scene-making, status-conscious self-regard that skeptics say is the essence of the correspondents’ dinner. Scaling back the “over-the-top-ness” of the event, says Leibovich, a New York Times Magazine writer, was a belated reaction to a trend that has left people feeling bloated and gassy for years. “It’s one of those things where I think everyone intuitively knew that it was a terrible look for the press, given the disconnect between the contempt that so much of the country seems to have for Washington and the media here compared to the level of self-love and self-celebration that that weekend just represents.”
But Leibovich himself epitomizes the ambivalence of many Washington players toward the weekend. About a decade ago, Dean Baquet—then the Times’ bureau chief in Washington and now its executive editor—pulled the paper out of the dinner for reasons similar to the Leibovich critique. But Leibovich would often attend an even more exclusive event—the Vanity Fair-Bloomberg party held after the dinner, which for the last few years was held at the French ambassador’s home. What’s more, he sometimes showed up in casual garb, not black tie, signaling subtly he was so cool that he hadn’t bothered to go to the stodgy dinner, only the more elite and glamorous after-parties. “If you’re a Washington reporter,” Leibovich says, “there’s no question you can get some work done at these events, and that would include the dinner.”
Vanity Fair and Bloomberg have stopped hosting their famous after-party during the Trump years. (“When Trump came into office, we figured we had it in the good years and decided to leave it at that,” says former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.) But its sister events have not, by any means, evaporated. Even a subdued White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the epicenter of a weekend of furious social activity for a city in which simply being seen at the right brunch is a pastime in itself. This year, it’s guaranteed that the decline (or moral renewal) of the dinner will be the buzzy topic of conversation at the roughly two dozen events held in a frenetic 72-hour period. One lesson of this year’s event might be that it barely even requires a central dinner to prop up a whole social ecosystem.
There are whole sections of Washington’s economy that normally experience a surge around the weekend—like party planning, limos and high-end restaurants—and no one there is exactly sucking wind. But the dropoff in out-of-town power and glitz means some businesses also aren’t pumping in dollars as in years past. A source at one of Washington’s top luxury hotels said the hotel used to charge a two-night minimum during the surge of celebrities and CEOs flying in for the dinner; this year, that’s not necessary, and high-level suites aren’t getting booked as much for the weekend. A source at David Rios Salon and Spa in Georgetown said it is getting fewer customers in for last-minute primping before the dinner.
Condon, the historian of the correspondents’ association, called the subdued event of 2019 a necessary reaction to circumstances—and also, he hopes, a temporary one.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of the dinner,” he says. “But it’s what you get when you have a president of the United States who has zero sense of humor and a president of the United States who spends his time attacking who we are and what we do for a living. Of course, you have to defend that, and of course you have to respond to the times.”
On the other hand, he added: “I would like the dinner to go back to being fun.”
Michael Calderone contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine