We are a sorry lot, us D.C. dwellers. Not sexy enough for Los Angeles, we settle for the pancake makeup of a cable news studio. Not rich enough for New York, we inflate our importance with proximity to political power.
We work longer hours than are healthy for happy families or lasting love affairs, and have few interesting qualities, if you discount our barroom celebrations over the latest attack ads or policy papers. As a rule, we treat creative individuality with the same suspicion as recreational drugs. You don't want to call too much attention to yourself, or put your security clearance at risk. It's no wonder that in middle age, so many of our successful men end up wearing work socks to bed with costly prostitutes.
These truths are self-evident, but we still try to keep up appearances. It's bad for business to admit you are a pinhead, even if the polls clearly show that the American people have not been fooled. So each year, nearly three thousand Beltway tribe members and their guests gather at the Washington Hilton, the place where Ronald Reagan got shot, to dine with the current President of the United States and pretend for a night that we actually belong to a cool crowd, a hip scene, an exclusive network of movers and shakers that everyone wants to join.
It is, to say the least, a hard sell. First, we call the whole horror show the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, as if all those big words mattered. Then we import lots of foreign ingredients: crates and crates of free alcohol, racks and racks of low-cut dresses, a couple red carpets, and dozens of dazed celebrity guests, who mingle with people like Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell with looks on their faces that suggest they can't wait to get back to California to fire their agents.
If you showed up Saturday night at, say, 6:30 p.m., you would have found two levels of pre-dinner cocktail parties, with most of the major news organizations having reserved a room so they could show off their success in luring B-listers from Hollywood or New York. The actress Jenny McCarthy wore a dress that prominently featured her breasts. The actor Johnny Knoxville looked dyspeptic. Lauren Conrad from MTV's The Hills had an entourage and foundation makeup. There was that lady from Desperate Housewives, that guy from Wedding Crashers and that other guy from Thank You For Smoking. At least one Black Eyed Pea showed up, and the vicious gossip Perez Hilton wore his hair in a kind of comb-over pompadour.
At the hotel's main doors, the same entryway where John Hinckley Jr. delivered his crazed love letter to Jodie Foster in 1981, a group of adolescent girls gathered to scream at the famous as they entered. Some of the shrieks came for a trio of moppy-headed teenagers, who someone identified to me as the Jonas Brothers, a hot new teenie-bop sensation, like a grade-school version of the Monkees with better hair. They wore tight pants and looked terrified, staying close to their bodyguard, a serious-looking fellow roughly the size of a compact European car.
Just before the dinner began, there was a commotion outside the men's room adjacent the main ballroom. For about twenty minutes, at least a dozen important-looking men in tuxedos rocked back and forth trying to control their bladders, while an agent from the secret service barricaded the bathroom door. Even CNN's Wolf Blitzer was turned away. After a time, the door blockade was lifted, but no VIP emerged from the urinals. The men decided, as they finally relieved themselves, that either the tiled bathroom held a secret trap door, or the rumor was true that President Bush had been holding in an adjacent room, and his security did not want to risk someone dropping a cherry bomb down the toilet.
The dinner itself was an unspectacular spread of white wine, white fish, steak and cheesecake. It was followed by President Bush, who rose to offer C-SPAN viewers another reason to doubt political journalists' ability to be anything but cowardly suck-ups to presidential pomp. In recent years, this event has been known mainly for the fantastic performance in 2006 of Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central host, who addressed the crowd with a withering critique of both the failures of President Bush and the media. "I stand by this man," Colbert had said sarcastically of Bush, at one point. "I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares."
Neither the press nor the President had a rebuttal to Colbert, then or now, so he was simply not invited back and officially forgotten. Ever since, the dinner had been a far less newsworthy affair. As is tradition, the President stood to do a short stand-up act, which included the retelling of an old joke about Vice President Dick Cheney watching Bush through a peephole in the Oval Office door while masturbating. Such is the state of Washington humor.
"This is a good chance to put aside our differences for a few hours," Bush said at another point. Then he drew from his podium a conductor's baton and turned his back to the audience of reporters and their guests. The curtains parted, revealing the U.S. Marine Band, which Bush then pretended to conduct in a recitation of "Stars and Stripes Forever." Though unstated, the joke was apparently that we in the press corps had been given a brief respite from following rise and fall of the White House conductor's baton. For tonight, at least, Bush would manipulate another institution instead.
Bush was followed by Craig Ferguson, the CBS talk show host, who toned down his normally subversive late night material out of respect for the assembled guests. "What does a President do when he retires?" Ferguson said at one typical moment. "You could look for a job with more vacation time." The best moment of his act came when he appeared to go off script and called Cheney "kind of pervy," yielding no noticeable reaction from the vice president who sat onstage.
Once the laughter was done, those who were famous, important or otherwise worked for someone famous or important, scurried outside into a light drizzle for the three-block walk to the Bloomberg after party. The financial wire service had transformed the Costa Rican Embassy into a rough approximation of a hip, Los Angeles nightclub, with neon lights, lots of vodka and nubile ladies who silently walked around dressed in form-fitting airline stewardess costumes. One wall of the main room had a series of stairs that led to the ceiling, at the top of which Rick Davis, the campaign manager for John McCain, sat down to appraise the crowd. The Jonas Brothers, still looking lost and worried, showed up with their hulking bodyguard, while CIA director Michael Hayden, who is responsible for sending secret forces to do nasty things in distant countries, mingled with no apparent security at all.
One hallway was lined with television screens that broadcast security camera footage of other parts of the party. "I had a great time," said Joel McHale, the guy who hosts The Soup on the E Network. "I just haven't slept in 24 hours." At around this point in the night, it occurred to me that I had made a horrible mistake in choosing my profession. Then I fell into conversation with an actor and writer. I asked him how he thought the Washington, D.C., crowd compared to the type of party scene one would find in Hollywood. He was both delicate and perceptive, saying that people on the West Coast have a "social intelligence" that the Washington crowd seemed to lack.
I took this as confirmation that we journalists were, in fact, as desperately dorky and socially backward a tribe as it seemed. The DJ was playing remixed Kanye West from his laptop, and Eric Dane, the man they call Dr. McSteamy from Grey's Anatomy, was holding court a few feet away. I could have salvaged what dignity I still had, and walked out in principled protest. But then I saw Isiah Whitlock Jr., the actor who played the corrupt Sen. Clay Davis on HBO's The Wire, standing with his hands at his side. Before I knew what I was doing, I had walked over and asked if I could get him a drink from the bar.