When I first started going to the White House Correspondents Dinner nearly a decade ago, I was enthralled — and not just because of the president. What political nerd doesn't want to schmooze it up with Warren Buffett, Angelina Jolie, Colin Powell, the Mad Men gang, Larry David, and Pamela Anderson? The excitement! The red carpet! The star treatment! The—
Wait. This is supposed to be about the peons in the White House Press Corps. It's supposed to be about journalism, and the people who cover the president of the United States. But it's not.
The dinner — also called "Nerd Prom" and "Bacchanalia on the Potomac" — was hijacked years ago by corporate behemoths. That means News Corp. (owner of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal), Comcast (owner of NBC), and many more use the evening to trot out celebrities and stroke big advertisers. Amazon, the new owner of The Washington Post, will control seven tables at this year's event. By the time all the corporate fat cats are done feeding at the trough, there won't be enough tickets for everyone who actually covers the White House to attend.
The White House Correspondents Dinner is a farce of money and power. It's Washington, Hollywood, and Wall Street all crammed into the basement of an aging Hilton Hotel. (Sidebar: It's also called the Hinckley Hilton because it's where John Hinckley shot President Reagan in 1981.) The hotel is kind of a dump most of the time, but once a year there's a red carpet and glitter galore. Tourists line up, squealing with delight as the stars strut their stuff before the cameras. Journalists slink through and smile awkwardly and pretend they belong.
Just 2,600 people get to go. The sucking up, slimy maneuvering, and straight up backstabbing to get a ticket is off the charts. Movie stars want to be near the president. Journalists want to be near the movie stars. Many see a ticket as some sort of validation that they are someone. There's an embarrassing amount of insecurity sloshing around the whole damned affair. Rich and famous people feel powerful. Nerdy people feel cool, even if just for a night. It's like high school, except the most powerful man in the world is in the room.
And really, why do presidents even bother to go? They spend the other 364 days of the year avoiding us journalists, going around us as much as possible, bitching about the coverage (all presidents dating back to George Washington have complained about this) — but then they sling on a tux and sit on stage for three hours listening to a bunch of lame jokes?
Of course, presidents dispense with their own wisecracks, too. Bill Clinton was funny. So was George W. Bush. And Barack Obama can deliver a one-liner with the best of them. The standup routine humanizes presidents — but it also degrades them. Familiarity breeds contempt. There is an aura and mystique about the presidency. It is corroded when presidents compete at standup with Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O'Brien.
Yes, I sound cranky, and maybe even a tad hypocritical, since I'm going tonight. But this is the last time, I swear. The whole thing is such a charade of faux-pompousness and imagineered coolness. It's just nonsense. We're better than this. I'm done with it, I swear. Really, this is the last — wait, is that Sandra Bullock?