At first, I had high hopes for my first White House Correspondents Dinner: big room full of powerful people, all of them setting political rancor aside to eat together and laugh. Plus Stephen Colbert. And a free 3-course meal.
The proceedings began well. On my way into the Washington Hilton, I walked past half-a-dozen good folks from the right-wing Free Republic online cabal, there to protest the “liberal media” by handing out pacifiers with “CNN” stamped on them. Not the world’s clearest metaphor, I agree. But if “Freepers” protest something, I want to go.
The trouble started once I got inside, took the escalator down to find my ticket, and started walking around the various pre-dinner receptions sponsored by the likes of Newsweek, Reuters, and People. There they were: Negroponte, John Bolton, Henry Kissinger. One sauntering around after the other, drink in hand. And mixed among them were the various stenographers and apologists: David Brooks, John Tierney, Tony Snow. All schmoozing, and most of them off-puttingly charming. Here were some of the most dangerous men in recent US history, and everyone seemed content to glad-hand them, complement their tux, and ask for a snapshot. “Oh hey, haven’t seen you in forever, you look great!” says CNN blow-dry. “Thanks, thanks, I’m quite well. How are your kids?” responds war criminal.
I walked out of the room and headed upstairs to the other floor of receptions. Part of me wanted to approach these famous power-brokers, just because I could. But what would I say? “You see the Cubs get clobbered earlier? And by the way, what’s new with the death-squads?” For someone who lives and works outside Washington, I know these men only for what they do and have done with their power and position. In person, I could not simply put the reputation of these figures aside - without knowing them, reputation was all I had. But to those up close, to the journalists and media types who see the John Bolton’s of the world 3, 4, 5 times a week, they’re friends. People from the office.
Partly, this dynamic made sense. There’s a broad congenial feel to the whole thing…it’s what the event’s sponsors and enthusiastic participants trumpet: everyone gets along, no matter who you work for or how much you disagree. And, maybe, it’s even somewhat reassuring that human instinct is to find points of similarity in others, no matter the background. A chance, perhaps, to get to know the softer side of those ruining your country.
As the receptions ended, we began filing into the ballroom, passing through Secret-Service magnometers. My table sat far to the left of the stage, but only about halfway back in the room. My seat at the table faced front, but also provided a view of the bored and Blackberry-ing rapper Ludacris to the left and Gold medal winner Joey Cheeks to the right. The program began, and the Correspondents Association President began by noting yet another challenging year for the press corps…and how catching heat from both political parties proved that once again, the press got it right.
About then, the real reason for this circle-jerk became clear: affirmation of continued reporting mediocrity. Apparently, no matter how many bad things you’ve done in the past year, the press will happily invite you to join them, B-list actor Ron Silver, and that one long-haired also-ran with the twin from American Idol to spend three hours together in a hotel ballroom. The press folks walking around weren’t out looking for the good in their government subjects, they were just trying to ignore the parts they hadn’t reported on.
And say what you want about the President, but at least he dislikes the event. At least, sitting there on stage, he wants to be somewhere else doing something less stupid. But he still attends, knowing he’ll come out on top: it might mean three hours of self-deprecating schmoozy pain for him now, but it’ll pay dividends in what he can get away with for another year.
The bright point of the evening (other than John Bolton having to navigate around a 15-ft. radius of Clooney gawkers) belonged to Joe and Valerie Wilson, who threw the absurdity back on the event. After three years of collusion between the Bush administration and the press to disappear through personal attack and distraction the truth Joe Wilson told, the Wilsons decided to attend. Of all the buried or spun stories leading us to foreign policy disaster over the past four years, Joe and Valerie’s presence announced one administration lie the press couldn’t forget. Seeing the two of them happy, healthy, and nearly unbothered by anyone reminded me what everyone else there was trying to forget: our system is sick.
At one of the pre-dinner receptions, Wilson told Editor and Publisher that he and his wife had “no reason to hide.” Someone should have told Joe that he was at the wrong party.