The last President to skip the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner was Ronald Reagan in 1981—he was recovering from an assassination attempt (just outside the Washington Hilton, where the dinner is held these days). But Reagan, in office only a few months, called in to the dinner and cracked a few jokes. The last President before Reagan who demurred was the one-termer whom Reagan beat, Jimmy Carter. The last before him was 1.5-termer Richard Nixon, who detested the press, had many enemies, real and imagined, and was soon to be impeached and resign. Which brings us to Donald Trump.
The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (WHCD) and associated parties—and it seems like there were once dozens—have been a top priority for many in Washington for too long to remember. It’s become the glitzy arena in which major journalism brands entertain their biggest advertisers in hopes that they just might get to catch the eye of the President of the United States—or even pick up George Clooney’s dropped dinner napkin.
Journalists of all stripes, not just the ones in the gilded cage of the White House beat, are along for the ride, as are lobbyists and flaks whose public affairs firms get clients to help pay for it all. Some high-profile correspondents are said to be rustling around for next year’s celebrity guests even as as this year’s tables are being cleared. And down the ranks, media types seeking invitations to parties they might not even attend descends to bloodsport levels. Or at least levels of indignity most would rather forget.
Sounds like a stage tailored for our first reality-TV-forged, Twitter-obsessed president. In fact, some say the WHCD created President Trump when Barack Obama pissed him off by using his speech at the 2011 dinner to mock Trump to his face as a nouveau riche birther.
Yet Trump’s now the first POTUS in over a generation to decline (via Twitter, of course) the standing invitation to roast and be roasted. Perhaps he will call or write in, and we heard he was sending Vice President Mike Pence—before White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced they would boycott the dinner, “standing in solidarity” with Trump’s avoidance strategy.
Might language like “solidarity” be designed to make one think more of Lech Walesa than Richard Nixon? Nah, it’s probably just to leave no doubt that the us-against-them implication is no longer subtext—it’s explicit, and has trickled down to the staff. (Solidarity should also end rumors that Trumplettes Ivanka, Eric, Don Jr., and Tiffany might throw a complementary or competing party.)
So this year’s event has become a fancy symbol of Trump’s contempt for, and codependency with, the press, whom he so often dismisses as peddlers of “fake news” and who are, in his words, the “enemy of the American people.” (Though his announcement that he wouldn’t be attending was oddly polite: “Please wish everyone well and have a great evening!” he tweeted.)
Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents Association, announced this most recent development and spoke of his dismay over this new, unhappy turn in the “natural tension between the press and administrations that is a hallmark of a healthy republic.” At the dinner this year, he vowed, “we will celebrate the First Amendment… and look forward to acknowledging the important work of our terrific members and awarding scholarships to students who represent the next generation of our profession.”
To many critics of “Nerd Prom,” as the WHCD has been called in recent years, this sober new direction isn’t all bad. Yes, the dinner is yet another battle in the president’s war on the press, but it was also a bloated relic in some need of some serious realignment. “This thing was a ticking time bomb,” one seasoned White House TV correspondent told me. “For years there were so many problems with the dinner—the Kim Kardashian factor, etc. Sooner or later a President was going to bail.” (It should be noted that the New York Times pulled out years ago.)
Yet there’s a hesitancy to let a thus-far troubled, hostile Presidency undermine a tradition that, however self-indulgent, has meaning and relevance. “This is a southern town, governed by protocols and decorum,” said Kelley McCormick, a long-time Washington public affairs consultant. “There is a certain reluctance to give up one of last bastions of bipartisanship, of coming together.”
Yes, the WHCD got ridiculous, but it also brought often-reluctant Presidents before their umpires to salute the First Amendment out loud, with witnesses. Then there’s also the prospect of lost revenue all around. The usual event sponsors, who in previous years would want to curry favor with both the President and the press, are “in a tight spot,” says one WHCD player. “You don’t have the gravitational pull you usually have, with much of Hollywood eschewing Trump and the president himself declining. And if you do show up, who are you showing up for? Is it opposition or support for the White House?”
Speaking of opposition, the weekend has in some ways gotten more interesting this year with the addition of parties planned in support of the press or antipathy to a volatile president. A Samantha Bee event is a prime example. “We were gonna get the hell out of town, but the counter programming has been so interesting that now we’re thinking about staying,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic PR consultant.
Which snaps us back to the all-important subject of the parties. As I mentioned above, it’s not just one night—the WHCD represents an entire social ecosystem. And this year, a couple of the alpha predators have disappeared. First was the early and very public cancellation of the Vanity Fair-Bloomberg party, which in the past was at the French Ambassador’s residence and attended almost exclusively by entertainment stars and top government officials (and very few White House correspondents). Bloomberg was going to go it alone after VF backed out, but then followed suit.
Since that news, it’s been harder to find out who’s buying tables at the dinner—and what key parties are happening—than it was to figure out who’d met with the Russian ambassador.
The next big ticket to disappear was the Time–People party. This event once promised A-listers an impressive swag bag loaded with everything from Nespresso machines to pricey hair products, say. (In recent years, it has downscaled to items like branded notebooks, water bottles and ball-point pens.) Several sources told me that a major factor in this cancellation was that Toyota withdrew its sponsorship. Though not aimed at Trump, Toyota’s move at least symbolically represents sponsors’ confusion as many neither want to appear to support Trump, nor oppose him. Time (full disclosure: I enjoyed five years as national security correspondent at the newsweekly) and Toyota wouldn’t discuss details. A Time spokesperson emailed confirming the cancellation and say, in part: “As usual, Time will be participating in the WHCA dinner. People will be making a donation to the WHCA in lieu of tables at the dinner.”
Toyota’s Aaron Fowles also politely dodged, emailing: “We are a sponsor of People, not the White House Correspondents’ Party. We are not saying anything about whether or not we would have sponsored the party, gladly or not, as you have tried to imply. Just like any other sponsored program, the company/entity you sponsor presents an arrange of activities that are included in the sponsorship, and sometimes those things change.”
Also not happening is Friday’s “Funny or Die” party, for years an exclusive, star-studded event with no selfies allowed, unless initiated by the stars themselves, which usually meant one star taking selfies with another (Damian Lewis, anyone?). We hear the comedy outfit is ditching the event in favor of a college stunt like holding a potato sack race on the Georgetown University campus.
But all is not lost. Some parties have survived the purge, most if not all invite-only, of course, and some with high security. One confirmed event on Friday will be the party following the Creative Coalition’s WHCD-timed 19th annual Congressional Arts Day. A few Hollywood types may show up to advocate for federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts—timely, since Trump just proposed eliminating the NEA—and arts in schools.
“We have a whole campaign under the hashtag #RightToBearArts,” says Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk. Bronk said she expects to be adding Fortune 500 executives to the lobbying mix. They will then hold a gala for a mere 100 people at “a fantastic restaurant in DC that cares bout the arts.” Sponsors from $1,000 to $75,000 are still welcome and Bronk says she’d love to have Trump join that list “if he wants to learn about the efficacy of federal funding for the arts.” The event lists some of the few stars who have said they will be around that weekend, such as Tim Daly of Madam Secretary and Tim Simmons and Matt Walsh of Veep.
And Capitol File magazine is again joining forces with British Ambassador and Lady Darroch to host a posh, multi-sponsor Friday party at the Ambassador’s Residence, next to the Vice President’s House on the Naval Observatory grounds. “We look forward to celebrating journalism, the media and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s initiative towards scholarships,” Capitol File publisher Meredith Merrill emails. Voto Latino, too, will host its annual “Our Voices” cocktail reception at the Hay Adams’ rooftop overlooking the White House.
Also on Friday, longtime Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell will be hosting the White House Correspondents Jam. It will be sans the New Yorker band, since the magazine is among those pointedly skipping the weekend this year. But expected bands include folks from the Wall Street Journal and CNBC as well as Carl Hulse of the New York Times and his Nativemakers. The party for 350, mostly journalists, at Hamilton Live is headlined by Billy Bob Thornton’s band, the Boxmasters. (Full disclosure No. 2: My band, Suspicious Package, including Pulitzer-winning Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles on drums and vocals, is also in the lineup.)
Moving to Saturday, Serious insiders can breathe a sigh of relief, as sources say the legendary Tammy Haddad Saturday brunch is a go. It will seek to raise awareness of veteran-run Dog Tag Bakery and to somehow honor journalists. For the untutored, Haddad was CNN and later MSNBC’s VP for Washington and produced some legendary talk shows like “Larry King Live” and “Hardball,” and is a credited consultant to HBO’s “Veep.” She’s a macher in D.C., and a devotee of WHCD, maintaining a web site that tracks the event.
Partially overlapping Tammy’s brunch is Saturday’s other leading event, Samantha Bee’s black-tie “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” pre-party, being thrown at 1 pm Saturday. At 3, Bee will tape a special before this same audience at Daughters of the Revolution Constitution Hall. The Bee party invite promises “Bottomless Cocktails and Assloads of Fancy Fingerfoods.” Bee gala tables are still available by the way (buyers subject to Bee’s approval) for $10,000. As is so often the case at WHCD, the even tougher ticket will be the after party, hosted by TBS, where the just-taped show will be screened. (Bee’s agency, Hollywood heavyweight UTA, will host a Friday party as well.)
“For those who plan on skipping” the actual WHCD—solidarity, anyone?—Buzzfeed, whose reporting has been a target of some of Trump’s particularly vibrant rages, is staging a “Red White & Banned” party at Brixton, a popular U Street bar. Promising “free booze for a free press,” this invite features grainy lines of type that is mostly blacked out — not unlike the Freedom of Information Act releases that Buzzfeed senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold is known for producing.
Which brings us to Sunday, the day after, which on WHCD weekend is not a day of rest. For the A-list there is the garden party at Politico owner (and banking and TV-station heir) Robert Allbritton’s Georgetown home. The house, by the way, is a virtual impressionist art museum, with security befitting the Louvre—but unlike the Louvre, no selfies inside the house, please. (Last year, the tented, delicious affair featured a fake tree so convincing it had some of us marveling at the custom tent fitted around a real tree.) It’s painstakingly planned to surprise guests with an international theme every year. Last year was a quite evocative France. Will this year be… Russia? “Nyet,” says a spokesman.
“We’ve always viewed the dinner, and more broadly the weekend, as an opportunity to bring people together, which we enjoy doing,” the Politico honcho’s wife, Elena Allbritton, told me via the spokesman. “Regardless of what happens with the dinner, Robert and I wanted to continue to host the brunch to provide a friendly, relaxed, and agenda-free space that allows guests to escape for a few hours.”
Then there is CNN’s aptly-named Sunday Hangover Brunch, location TBA, which will be the place to be for most actual journalists. Reuters, the newswire whose White House correspondent just happens to be White House Correspondents Association president Jeff Mason, is also holding its usual brunch, sources say. Mason would not discuss it. (For that matter, amid the touchiness of this year’s event, Mason gave me the Heisman on all of my questions, such as expected attendance, how many of the $3,000 tables have been sold and the closely-watched question of how many news outlets that hadn’t won tables in the past have been allotted them this year.)
But we do know CNN bought the maximum number of allowed tables to the actual dinner, and is hosting journalism students from five D.C.-area journalism schools for the dinner and its brunch. “We feel there is no better way to underscore our commitment to the health and longevity of a free press than to celebrate its future. We stand with the WHCA 100 percent and look forward to being a part of an evening dedicated to funding scholarships and honoring great journalism,” said Matt Dornic, CNN vice president for communications.
One more thing. The A, A-minus, and B+ list can breathe a provisional sigh of relief upon learning that MSNBC appears to be holding its traditional late-night afterparty. But it won’t be at the spectacular location that accommodated it in recent years, the U.S. Institute of Peace. (“I can share that we’re not rented for that time period,” said Lisa Frazier, USIP’s events contact.)
The Institute of Peace, incidentally, will have to rent out its atrium a whole lot more if Trump gets his way. The new President zeroed the $35.3 million agency out in his proposed 2018 budget.