Monday, April 28, 2008

Caught in the WHCA Maelstrom

President Bush arrives at the 94th Annual Dinner of The White House Correspondents' Association. 8:30 PM.
This past Saturday morning JH and I took the Amtrak Acela down to Washington for the 94th White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at the Hilton that night. It was a beautiful Spring morning. It’s a great train ride through the countryside and cities of Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. Union Station is always wonderful to enter, and then you exit out into the capital city.

For a New Yorker who lives in what is essentially the center of the modern world, Washington is intriguing. You are in the center city of American life. L’Enfant planned its grandeur and the visitor is immediately aware of it.
The comfy beds at the Park Hyatt Washington.
We were put up at the Park Hyatt Washington on 24th and M Streets just around the corner from Embassy Row. New; very state of the art, clean, efficient, serene; very comfortable beds; very – which is nice when you’re worn out and need a good sleep.

The evening is black tie. Carol Joynt of the Washington Social Diary was our guide.
DPC catching up with the news before donning his black tie.
It started about 6:30. The Washington Hilton is an ellipsoidal-shaped building on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and T Street. There were several police cars on the corner closing off the street. Although we were told we’d need an ID of some sort to enter the hotel, we were never asked to show it.

As we approached the auditorum (lower) entrance, we heard the screeching of (presumably) teenage (presumably) girls. As you entered the entrance gallery there was a crowd of mainly young girls screeching as if a rock idol had just entered. They even screamed when we entered. It seemed almost orchestrated, like a parody of itself. On the other side of the wide red carpet was a bank of photographers. Right behind someone else entered. Donatella Versace. More screeching; media pandemonium. It is funny because it’s so absurd. Or perhaps it’s so absurd it’s funny. She's tiny with the big blonde mane and the trout pout. Her body is supreme.

The program
Once inside we were led right out onto the terrace where the was a white tent set up and a couple of bars and 1000 men and women in black tie and long dresses. Greta van Sustern was in tuxedo and white shirt although no tie.

Were these the White House Correspondents? So many of them. And their wives, and girlfriends or husbands and boyfriends? Yes, and no. As we moved through the crowd running into people we knew from New York, politicians we recognized from their pictures, media executives, etc., we could see it was a very broad demographic. I saw Perez Hilton, the usually day-glo haired internet gossip columnist who trades on puerile vulgarity as humor. His hair was a shade of brown. He was wearing a dinner jacket and black shirt. He looked like a kid at his first prom. 2008 Prom, that is.

At the Newsweek/Washington Post party we were greeted at the entrance by Lally Weymouth in a fire engine red long dress and Newsweek’s editor Jon Meachem. This was said to be one of the more prestigious collections of media/politico humanity. Henry Kissinger was chatting it up with Brent Scowcroft and greeting old friends a well-wishers. Felicia Taylor was taking it all in. A lot of us were just looking around for familiar faces (or the bar). The mood was as it was everywhere else – anticipatory.

Never having been before, not knowing what to expect, I was looking forward to the opportunity to see President Bush just to see what he looks like in the flesh. One of the frequent surprises of seeing the actual individual whose image you know only in pictures or video is how different they look from their picture. The same but different.

Newt Gingrich’s shock of white hair almost looks like a cariature yet it’s real, making him look just slightly like a doll-like version of the real man. Henry Waxman, the California Congressman is surprisingly short (versus my image of him as a long tall drink of water). And a little on the stout side. Karl Rove looks exactly like Karl Rove amazingly relaxed. Wolf Blitzer looks like he needs to shave.

The Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty is astonishingly young and seems refreshingly devoid of that gladhanding supersmile persona that a lot of politicians turn on and off. He has a very impressive vibe about him, a shirtsleeves leader (in black tie of course).
A crowd of mainly young girls screeching for the arrivals ...
A lot of the television faces off-camera are not as easy on the eye, or are surprisingly ordinary looking. A lot of the politicians look very much like they’re from Out There Somewhere, just this side of geek. Most do not have the personas that you might imagine compatible with the majesty of the city’s architecture. We expect great men and women to reside and preside in those grand buildings. Not realistic.

Big cocktail parties like this are not interesting per se, other than the people-watching. And that is most interesting when you can see a familiar face, be it friend or celebrity. Eventually we wandered back to the entrance where the girls behind the cordon were still screeching orgasmically. By the time we got there we figured it must be Pamela Anderson (who was promised in the press releases) or some rock star. It was the latter, sort of. The Jonas Brothers, who this writer and his party had never heard of. Three teenage brothers from New Jersey. In black tie of course. Small, slight, dark-haired, somewhat shy surrounded by bodyguards and camera flashes, they looked slightly pouty and fairly at ease with the melee. I give you the Jonas Brothers.

I saw Martha Stewart and Georgette Mosbacher, and Steve Kroft and Jenny Conant; Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, Patricia Duff, Princess Firyal, Mitt Romney,  Ron Silver, Jesse Kornbluth, Ben Affleck. Celerie Kemble and Boykin Curry were at the same table as I, guests of John Sullivan and the National Journal, and Justin Smith, the new President of the Atlantic Monthly. There were quite a few familiar faces whose names escaped me.
Donatella Versace from the back ...
... and Donatella signing a fan's bow tie.
About 8 o’clock the crowd then began moving over to the dining room. 2400 guests, someone told me. A vast space with a wide stage. Tables of ten, all placement, and a bright, wide dais on one side. People didn’t dawdle because they were told to be there and be seated when the President arrived.

The President and the Vice President and Mrs. Cheney were announced. The Marine Band played. Once everyone was assembled on the dais, the band struck up the Star Spangled Banner. Both the President  and the Vice-President, right hands over their hearts, stood at attention but did not sing. Nor did many others on the dais and in the room.

The President was looking chipper, ruddy-cheeked as if he’d had a bit of sun. The night before he had been up in Connecticut at a reception at Henry and Nancy Kissinger’s for a fundraiser for a local Congressional candidate. There were a few hundred guests and the President was said to be very impressed with the turnout.

Once the national anthem was over, the crowd took their seats and began chatting among themselves. Ann Compton of ABC News opened the evening. Whatever she said, even with her mikes on and the video screens set up throughout the room, it was impossible to hear a word she was saying. The crowd simply would not stop talking.

The White House Correspondents' Association 2008 dinner menu:

Spring Salad
Baby Lettuce with Red and yellow Tear Drop Tomatoes
Candied pecans, Nicoise Olives
Blue Hazen Cheese
Green Peppercorn Dressing
Bread presentation to include:
Seven Grain Rolls, White and Wheat Rolls
Sourdough Rolls, Matzoh

Berber Spiced Petite Filet Paired With Tunisian Tabil Seared Salmon
Cranberry and Orange Risotto
Asparagus, Patty Pan Squash
Roasted Cipolinni Onion
Pomegrante Demi

White Chocolate Mousse
Served with Fresh Raspberries on top
Plate garnished with Raspberries and Strawberries
Drizzled with Raspberry and Mango Couhs
Whipped Cream
Steele 'Shooting Star' Chardonnay
Blackstone Merlot
Some others were introduced. There were some awards given out. The recipients appeared on stage. Each was greeted by the President who then posed for a picture with them. After a few other remarks from Ms. Compton et al, all entirely inaudible over the din filling the room, we were served our dinner.

As you can see from the menu to the right, a lot to eat. After the main course, there was a fifteen- or twenty-minute break before dessert was served. Many guests got up to table hop the room.

Then Ann Compton introduced President Bush. He does look just like his pictures. He appears mainly bemused many times, and so it was this night. He made mention of this being his last WHCA dinner and there was a hint in his tone not of regret or resignation but relief. Like “who needs it?” He reminisced with some funny video footage of himself and his father and siblings as toddlers, and poking fun of the Vice President’s “lack” of exercise. It was interesting to see how he has “aged” in the past eight years, or rather: how much younger he looked eight years ago. He seems even more self-confident, however, and youthful.

When he was through with his remarks, he told us he’d finish by doing something he’d always wanted to do. Whereupon the curtains parted and the Marine Band was poised to play. The President then turned away from the audience and with the band began conducting John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  This was the highlight of the evening.

Although the piece was seriously presented, there is a touch of the zany, of the collegian cut-up in the President under these circumstances. He seemed supremely confident in handling the conductor’s stick, and his rhythm was on the money. But every now and then there’d be a flourish to provoke a laugh.

The President was given a warm applause. I’d read that President Bush goes to bed about 9 p.m. It was well after 11, after comedian Craig Ferguson was finished. I wondered how long before the President would be relieved to get back to the White House and hit the sack.

The moments seeing and hearing the President  -- the only time in the entire evening when the audience was quiet – were fascinating to this out of towner simply because he’s the President. However, the rest of the party was an odd combination of interests, infinitely noisy.
Marcia Cross arrives
A princess of sorts
What was surprising was the mix of celebrities. You had to ask yourself what all this ballyhoo had to do with White House Correspondents. My question is evoked by what I now can see was an adolescent notion of what White House Correspondents are.

It might be telling that Helen Thomas, the senior WHCA, now in her tenth decade, sat at the dais throughout the entire evening with her head down. She never applauded and she never looked up. Someone suggested it was a silent protest over the character of the proceedings.

The distinct lack of seriousness (other than the seriousness of a bunch of people getting together and gabbing over dinner and drinks) suggested a Circus. Of Elephants and Jackasses. If you catch my drift. It was like the Academy Awards except there was only one star to quiet the mob and that was the President who himself seemed entirely poised and unfazed by the surrounding blabbery. More dearth than mirth. Mr. Bush in his remarks pointed out that next time they convened, there would be a new President.

Craig Ferguson then took the podium. As soon as he was over, and even before, the guests start exiting. They heading for the parties. Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, Jason Binn and many others. Like the Oscars. Except Saturday night it was pouring rain when we emerged from the Hilton. Bloomberg had a staff at the exit with umbrellas for all their invited guests.
Rita Cosby
John Fox Sullivan of the National Journal
Celerie Kemble and Tom Nides
Tucker Carlson
Susan Toffler and Tricia Messerschmidt
Mayor Adrian Fenty
The Jonas Brothers
Leon Wieseltier and Christiane Amanpour
Jim Kimsey
Jim Brantley
Bill Plante
Making a private call
Michael Johns with a fan
Pre-partying on the Washington Hilton Hotel terrace. 7:30 PM.
The scene on the terrace a few minutes before dinner begins
Davis Vanderwerff
David Corn, Michael Isikoff, and Mary Ann Akers
Newt Gingrich
Lally Weymouth and Jon Meacham
Donald E. Graham
Lloyd Grove
Celerie Kemble, Steve Cannon, and Melissa Scauri
Sally Susman, Rich Buckley, and Elizabeth Keffer
Boykin Currie and Ann Cannon
Jonathan Alter with Mary Lou and Cliff Sloane
Felicia Taylor and Susan Bennett
Carol Joynt and Bradley Cooper
Chuck Todd
Ben Bradlee and Justice Antonin Scalia
Ben Bradlee with Maureen and Justice Antonin Scalia
Robert Zimmerman and Dan Raviv
Eduardo Verastegui
Justin Smith
Lloyd Grove dishing with Henry Kissinger
Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger
Miss USA with a fan
Samantha Topping
Jonathan Capehart
Michael Chertoff
Pamela Brown and Jeff Hirsch
Wolf Blitzer
The President doing his routine
The massive dining room at the Hilton which accommodated over 2,400 guests on this night.
Karl Rove and Georgette Mosbacher
Jenny Conant
Sally Quinn and Steve Kroft
Charlie Rangel
On the dais with some of the country's more recognizable faces.
Martha Stewart
Patricia Duff
P. J. O'Rourke and Steve Kroft
Greta Van Susteren
Sheryl Berkoff and Rob Lowe
President Bush conducting the band.
There was a line around the block. In the rain. To get into the Bloomberg tent. Uh-uh. We moved on to the Jason Binn party at the Newseum (see Washington Social Diary). With catering by Wolfgang Puck and very fancy bars (anything you want). The Newseum is a beautiful new museum right across from the National Gallery. It was soon filled with hundreds of guests including a number of celebrities.

About midnight Pete Wentz came in to DJ. The age range ran across the board but the emphasis was on the now. It was a nice party, more mixing, more gabbing.  After midnight I was glad to be back at the Park Hyatt, quiet and serene and far from the madding crowd.
The scene at The Newseum.
From this writer’s point of view, the 94th White House Correspondents’ Dinner begs analogy. It defines something and that something is about us. I asked Carol Joynt, our Washington Social Diary correspondent to give us a little background on the event and its recent history. Her recollections are recorded in today’s Washington Social Diary.
DPC meets an authentic uncommitted Superdelegate: Jerome Wiley Segovia
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont, Carol Joynt, and Emmanuel Lenain
Manolo faceoffs
The make-up nook at the entrance
Lauren Conrad flanked by fans
Morgan Fairchild on camera
Katherine Kallinis and Sophie Lamontagne
Stan Kasten
Anne Groer
Open-face cheeseburgers
A selection of sweets
Rosario Dawson surrounded by fans.
Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy
Flipping through Capital File
The scene at the Newseum
Craig Ferguson and Wolf Blitzer arrive
Rhoda and Dan Glickman
Richard Schiff
Tandy Dickerson, Janet Donovan, and Wyatt Dickerson
Driving along Pennsylvania Avenue in the rain. 12:30 AM.
On Friday night we were unable to make another dinner in Washington. Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley and his wife Katherine Bradley held a comparatively much smaller dinner at their house on Massachusetts Avenue.
The scene in front of the Bradley home as guests oohed and awed over a hot GM sports car on display.
In two rooms ablaze in candelight and festooning with fresh flowers, the 70 or so guests were served a menu from two states, Florida and Michigan:

Stone Crab Claws, flown in from Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach, followed by Michigan Free Range Chicken with Michigan Wild Rice.
Atlantic Media Group CEO David Bradley talks to guests outside his Washington home
Atlantic Media Group Chairman John Fox Sullivan and Beverly Sullivan, Publisher and CEO of Altantic Media
Beverly Sullivan and Katherine Bradley
Final touches before dinner is served.
Guests at dinner
Goodie bags at the ready
Sunday morning, up with the crack of dawn (rainclouds above), we went down to grab breakfast in the Park Hyatt restaurant. A lovely hotel but the surprise was the nifty service with a staff of pleasant, attentive service. You get a sense of people looking to help you. The breakfast included an excellent buffet as well as a wide menu of choices. Finished by 8:15, by 9 we were on the Acela back to New York.
The Continental Breakfast spread.
JH's egg white omelette with tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheddar.
DPC's western omelette.

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