Monday, April 28, 2008

Washington Social Diary

The Red Carpet at the 2008 The White House Correspondents' Association.
White House Correspondent Dinner Memories
By Carol Joynt

My first White House Correspondents Association dinner was pre-Watergate. Richard Nixon was President, Merv Griffin was the master of ceremonies, the top celebrity in the room was bachelor White House National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, and it was a sophisticated and grown-up affair.

The men wore traditional black tie and the women were in chic cocktail dresses and understated jewelry that made me think of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. It was in the ballroom of the Sheraton Park Hotel, there was no red carpet, no paparazzi, and the after-parties were rather swanky and intimate gatherings in upstairs hotel suites, where bartenders in dinner jackets served Scotch on the rocks and dry gin martinis to names that were boldface because of their bylines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Star, AP, UPI, Time, Life, Look and Newsweek

I was 18, which we hope excuses my attending in a caftan and sandals, and braless, but then my bureau chief at United Press told me only that afternoon that I would be attending – “hey, kid, can you fill a vacant seat” – and my wardrobe was tuned to covering my beat, the Vietnam protest movement, and not attending formal affairs.  Still, the back of my chair rubbed up against the back of Kissinger’s chair, prompting one of my editors to whisper, “if you get his attention he might take you out and you’ll get a scoop.” In so many, many ways, that was then.

Over the years, and through roles at Time Magazine, CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, CNN and now NYSD, I’ve attended more than two dozen WHCA dinners and watched the event change radically over that time. The only constant has been Kissinger (who, by the way, never took me out).

Some basic background from my hazy memory: The event dates back to the 1920s, but I can account only for the past few decades.

The dinner was set up as an opportunity for primarily print reporters, particularly from the White House press corps, to have a gala where they could invite their “sources” as guests. A night off from the cat and mouse game of the fourth estate watchdogging the government.

There were some modest pre-parties, the dinner, and a handful of after-parties. The dinner was thing. The President almost always attended. The entertainment, designed to please the President, was as high end as the WHCA could snag Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra, for example. But often lower brow, too.

One year Nixon wanted a singing group from Disneyland. The guests took their seats before the head table walked in, everyone was quiet as “Hail to Chief” was played and the President arrived, and also quiet when the Military Honor Guard marched in and presented the colors before the singing of The National Anthem. The main event was the presentation of awards to reporters who achieved great things in the past year, and while they trooped across the stage for a photo op with the president the room was politely attentive.

In the 1970s and the early 80s the bawdier dinner was the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, a parallel gala to the WHCA dinner that also focused on Capitol Hill, but splashier because it featured people who were in broadcasting, and the entertainment was often a comedian. Also, there was a lot of rich network money thrown around, making for more lavish parties. That was the dinner where you expected to see flashy jewelry, over-dressing and famous faces – Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters, for example. By comparison, the WHCA event was a dinner of the Society of the Cincinnatus.

Then Mike Kelly happened. It was 1987 and Kelly (a terrific journalist who was killed covering the Iraq war) worked for the Baltimore Sun. Rather than inviting some gray, faceless news source as his guest, he invited Iran-Contra scandal hottie Fawn Hall. His colleagues in the print media were outraged. “How could he?” they cried. “How low can you go?” they demanded. But Mike and his guest got all the attention and made headlines round the planet. The next year Kelly brought another scandal queen, Donna Rice, who was white hot famous at the time for her “Monkey Business” tryst with presidential candidate and senator, Gary Hart. Now the game was on and every otherwise sober news organization wanted to outdo the other in bagging the most outrageous and headline-grabbing celebrity guests. “We want some of that,” they hummed, in a pre-TMZ universe, not even really sure what “that” was.

The hunt started in winter for a dinner that didn’t happen until spring. News offices loved leaking who they’d snagged, whether it was Ozzy Osbourne, a rejected American Idol contender, an Olympics medalist, Robert DeNiro, Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche when they were an item, George Clooney, Kevin Costner, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, John Kennedy Jr and Carolyn Bessette, and on and on. It evolved into a circus of mixed nuts. Nothing connected the dots. The outrageousness became the purpose. For every Supreme Court justice in the room, there was a newly minted starlet with fresh implants, sequined spandex and a big bright smile.

Along the way some other things changed. The dinner moved from the smaller ballroom of the Sheraton Park to the much larger ballroom of the Washington Hilton. The Hilton also offered a vast outdoor, pool-side terrace that made for much more elaborate pre-cocktail parties. The entertainment changed, too. Singers couldn’t keep the audience’s attention. A Ray Charles performance, for example, got drowned out by the loud conversation in the room.

Comedians became the preferred entertainment, and rather than appealing to the president the trend tended more toward cockiness. While Jay Leno was a hit the year he appeared, Don Imus infuriated President Bill Clinton when he joked pointedly about Clinton’s “private” life. In recent years, Steve Colbert pounded President Bush so hard the audience reacted as if he had gone too far. The reaction to Colbert prompted the organization to book Rich Little last year, but he bombed.
The frenetic scene along the red carpet.
It’s a tough gig for comedians and many don’t want to do it. In 1997, when Rosie O’Donnell bailed out at the 11th hour, the WHCA asked for an assist in getting a replacement act. At the time I was a producer for Larry King. The dinner was about ten days off. Most comedians were booked for Saturday night. I called the wonderful Peter Lasally, one-time executive producer for both Johnny Carson and David Letterman, who put me in touch with a fresh face in talk show comedy, Jon Stewart. Jon was game. For a week we talked on the phone at night as he worked hard to formulate a routine. “Who are the correspondents I can mention whose names will prompt a laugh?” was just one of the many questions he asked. “What do they find funny in Washington?” It’s an impossible question to answer about a city that has a deficit sense of humor. But he pressed on, working with the obvious news stories of the day and goings on in the pre-Lewinsky scandal era of the Clinton Administration.

The night of the dinner Jon was ready to rock. He had great material. Up at the head table, he was ready for his moment. Clinton appeared first, but Clinton did his own stand-up routine with material written by Al Franken, who was seated beside me along with Stewart’s mother and girlfriend. Franken chuckled through every one of his very funny jokes as Clinton hit them out of the park. It was clear that Jon was quietly mortified as the President stepped all over his routine. What’s a comedian to do when the President precedes him with a pre-emptive and winning act? Jon got up, did his best, and was happy (or maybe relieved) when it was over. Ironically, now he is a God among Washington media and could own the stage at the WHCA dinner. But, seriously, he doesn’t need the gig.

The other change is the after parties. Credit here goes to Graydon Carter and Vanity Fair, who did for the after-party what Mike Kelly did for the guest list. The VF party started as a small after-party at the apartment of Christopher Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue. In the mid-90s Carter moved it to an imposing mansion a mere one block walk from the Hilton. It was, as all VF parties tend to be, a glamorous soiree, certainly way ahead of the curve for Washington. It was better than the dinner itself, and certainly offered better food and drinks. It was packed with a certified “A” list, sashaying through rooms with dramatic lighting, many candles, ceiling high veils and curtains, or arrayed among the sofas on the lawn.

When the Vanity Fair after-party reached its peak of popularity, Carter got bored with the WHCA and abandoned it and handed the party off to Bloomberg communications, who put it on steroids and opened the list to virtually everyone. Today, Jason Binn and his Niche Media compete head-to-head with Bloomberg for the honors of most fabulous after party, complete with amazing décor, food, deejays, and trendy drinks. Hitchens and Blue have resumed a resurgent Vanity Fair after-party at their apartment, but with a tight guest list.

In sum, the WHCA dinner has become the annual event Washington loves to whine about but still everyone scrambles to be there. Or, enough of everyone to attract the world’s press and a vast assortment of celebrities from every category of notoriety. Who knew in the 1920s that it would evolve into a dinner that includes the President and Vice President of the United States as well as the owner of the Bunny Ranch and some of his bunnies?  It no longer has much to do with serious journalism or the courting of important sources, which is why, several years ago, the New York Times pulled out altogether. It was a bold act on the part of the Times, but no one at the dinner notices or cares. Their absence makes room for more circus acts.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.