Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Washington Social Diary

The massive dining room at the Hilton which accommodates about 2,500 guests.
by Carol Joynt

If you don’t count the city’s 24-hour national security hubs, and the need to keep air traffic controllers awake, Washington was uneventful last week as Congress was in recess and many people quietly celebrated the spring holidays. The big week is the one upon us, when the circus comes to town.

But, you might ask, why is this year’s circus, I mean annual White House Correspondent's Association dinner, different from all others, or at least the past 5 or 10? It is, after all, the capital’s glossiest annual social event.

The Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger explored the issue in her “Reliable Source” column, declaring this year’s event has “less buzz.” She blamed “the crush of real news, the distraction of the royal wedding.” I can’t assess the impact of the royal wedding, but there’s no question real news is a buzz kill.

Weren’t things supposed to be better by now, and I don’t mean just for money moguls and the über rich, but regular folks who struggle with mortgages, medical bills, tabs for college tuition and have gas tanks to fill?

It doesn’t feel like circus time, no matter the WHCA’s weekend of 15 rings with every kind of party, high-maintenance lions and tigers who are wrangled from tinseltown, and the clown acts. Don’t ask me to name the clown acts.

This event has become a variation of Angry Birds, with each year bringing a new level of competition in the form of more invitations, more parties to aim for, and there’s never enough weaponized birds, I mean time, to devour all the pigs, I mean parties! It’s enough to make one pay 99 cents for The Mighty Eagle, put it in the slingshot, and KAPOW! Next game.
Outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, where the White House Correspondents Dinner happens each year.
Pre-partying on the Washington Hilton Hotel terrace.
The red carpet.
A crowd of mainly young girls screeching for the arrivals ...
At the WHCA dinner it's all about the photos.
The crowded hallway which connects the many pre-parties at the Hilton. This is the scene.
On the dais at the 2010 White House Correspondents' Association dinner (photo: Paul Morse).
The main event is Saturday, but there are competing Friday night dinners (in my humble opinion the best gigs of the weekend.) Atlantic Media’s David and Katherine Bradley own the center ring, but Chris Dodd, the former senator and new head of the Motion Picture Association of America, has cartwheeled into the fray with his own Friday soiree, promising “a menu of cocktails and hors d’oeurves created and presented by ‘Top Chef All-Stars’ runner up, Mike Isabella.” To quote Mike’s Bravo cousin, Vicki Gunvalson, “Whoo Hoo.” (Which reminds me, has anybody invited all the casts of all the Real Housewives? Now, that’s a party.)

There are at least three brunches—one on Saturday, two on Sunday—dozens of pre-parties, including a fresh entry hosted by Tina Brown, and enough after parties to keep Washington’s limo drivers on the clock till Sunday’s dawn. Most people, though, will clamor to attend the crowded and sophisticated Vanity Fair/Bloomberg party at the French Ambassador’s residence and the Jason Binn/Niche Media party at the Reagan Building.
Guests always enjoy cocktails outside the Washington home of David and Katherine Bradley.
Atlantic Media Group CEO David Bradley talks to guests outside his Washington home. Inside the party with Beverly Sullivan and Katherine Bradley.
The 2009 Bradley dinner in full swing.
The French ambassador's residence at well after midnight.
The Vanity Fair/Bloomberg after party is a grown up affair.
The champagne flowed at the French Ambassador's in 2010.
Morgan Freeman and Richard Johnson
Chace Crawford with Pam Brown. He attended two years in a row. Will he make it a third?
Jason Binn's 2010 WHCA after party, before the hordes arrived.
The scene at The Newseum for the Jason Binn/Niche Media party in 2008.
The VF party draws an older group; the loose women are in their 40s and 50s. Jason’s is younger and the more “party down” party. Of the Sunday brunches, John McLaughlin’s at the Hay-Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House, is the time-honored tradition and once upon a time owned the slot, but Politico’s Robert Allbritton now hosts a competing upstart at his Georgetown mansion, overlooking the whole town.

A little secret: if you simply want to ogle some celebs on Sunday morning, have breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. Most of the big names stay there and many wander in, bleary-eyed, in search of a cup of coffee, a newspaper and a plate of scrambled egg whites before heading to the airport.
All the regulars at the Four Seasons Hotel have their favorite tables, but the one in the far corner is favored by Hillary Clinton and George Will.
While you're there, you can also ogle The Four Seasons' frittata.
Which brings me to the sensitive subject of the Hollywood people. On a daily basis the nation’s esteemed “serious” media have been lobbing press releases that tout the TV and film stars they’ve scored for the dinner, many of them facilitated by the Creative Coalition, which has become the White House Correspondents Association’s adjunct seat-filler.

There will be a number of repeats, including Matthew Morrison, Jon Hamm, and Steven Tyler. Cute, handsome, and pretty. Todd Palin came to an earlier dinner, but this year his daughter, Bristol Palin, will represent the family. Sean Penn, of course, plus Courtney Cox and David Arquette (at separate tables, requiring double the scrum), Diane von Furstenburg and Barry Diller, Kate Hudson, Paul Rudd, Mira Sorvino, Shaun White ... You know the names, the faces, and the drill.
Matthew Morrison, Steven Tyler, and Jon Hamm.
Bristol Palin; Courtney Cox and David Arquette; Sean Penn.
The actors are fun to look at, and it’s great when they give their time to causes, but what any of them have to do with the business of journalists covering the White House and Washington is anybody’s guess. I’ve given up trying to connect the dots.

“They're just decorating a room and taking a seat from someone else,” wrote Amy Argetsinger in an email. Back in the Stone Age, at my first WHCA dinner, the most glamorous and clamored after person in the room was ... Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Adviser, a guest of the Associated Press.

Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger.
David Corn and Michael Isikoff.
Sadly, today, if the dinner’s biggest celeb was the person with the same job, Tom Donilon, there would be no red carpet, no phalanx of media, no screaming fans, no before and after receptions, cocktail parties, competing dinners and brunches.

It is nice of the stars to accept the tickets to fly here and the hotel rooms to spend the night, but will Penn, for example, who is a guest of Mother Jones’ David Corn, reciprocate and invite David to be his guest at the Oscars? That would be polite, and it is the only dot I plan to connect.

“There's a total pointlessness to their presence, and they know it,” wrote Amy about the imported celebrities. It’s a valid point, but subversive for Washington, where celebrity is king and proximity to entertainment industry boldfacers casts a warming glow on the dour industry of government.

Memo to the media hosts of tables at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner: Washington has plenty of its own talent. It is a rich resource of people with intellect, power, secrets and skill. Hollywood makes movies about them all the time.

In conclusion, and with all due respect to the WHCA and its esteemed celebrity guests, I prefer actors on the screen, helping me to escape reality, and masters of the universe as dinner partners, perhaps helping to explain why things aren’t better yet.
Carol's upcoming memoir is Innocent Spouse, excerpted at Vogue.com