White House Correspondents Dinner: Obama Can Also Be His Own Comedian

Beyond all of the indulgence of VIP lists, select tables, black tie and gown, meet and greet stuff at this gathering is that there were real moments of serious policy and political discussion that were not trivial.
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It really is true. Barack Obama can staff himself better on nearly all fronts than those who staff him -- even comedians.

Barack Obama so outdid Jay Leno, more by accident than by design (I think), at the White House Correspondents Dinner that next year the WHCA should just let Obama do the President's remarks and the follow-up humor. And yes, I know Leno was not "staffing" Obama, but still. . .

Morgan Freeman, one of the few actors at the White House Correspondents Dinner who expressed interest in political blogs and think tanks, told me that he thought that it was a mistake for Jay Leno to follow President Obama.

Leno just didn't hit his groove during his routine -- but President Obama said preemptively that night that everyone knew what happened to those who followed Leno's time slot -- and well, he wasn't gonna take any chances.

Obama, whose material was put together by Jon Favreau, Ben Rhodes and Jon Lovett, was hilarious. As I watched him perform, I remembered the self-conflident line on Obama that Ryan Lizza captured in a piece when the President remarked that he could do better than any of the people working for him in their jobs. As captured by Lizza, Obama said:

I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director.

It's totally clear now that President Obama can and should be his own White House Correspondents Dinner comedian.

The President joked about his missing birth certificate, lampooned Politico (whose co-founder John Harris said the "skinned knees were worth it"), called out to the Jonas Brothers with a polite warning that should they get any ideas about Sasha and Malia, he had just two words for them: "predator drones." He noted that his favorability ratings had fallen -- but that Hillary Clinton consoled him, saying "you're likable enough."

And back on his missing birth certificate, Obama said that he knew his popularity was still sky high "in the country of his birth."

People were gasping and laughing pretty hysterically at the edginess of Obama's remarks. Leno just couldn't beat him.

I saw Larry King with the collar of his jacket up -- looking nervous and a bit uptight. He told me he was freezing and wanted to find "who was in charge" to get the heat turned on -- but I think it was nervousness that the President might be offered Larry's slot on CNN.

This annual glitz fest is not as vapid and silly as folks might think. There are "thinkers" at all of the parties, policy wonks, real journalists who do solid work, even academics -- in addition to the Hollywood types who come into town.

Joshua Micah Marshall, publisher of Talking Points Memo and proprietor of TPM Media, invited me to join his table and team at the dinner -- including David Kurtz, Managing Editor of TPM, TPM White House Correspondent Christina Bellantoni, and Millet Israeli who is TPM's General Counsel. But the other guests Josh Marshall invited were stellar including my old friend Darren Star, creator of Sex in the City, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place; former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and current National Security Council Chief of Staff and his wife Denis & Kari McDonough.

I can't go into detail about discussions at our table -- but it can be said that the glitz and fanfare of the dinner didn't come near to squelching an extraordinary exchange between Brzezinski, Scowcroft and McDonough built on an impressive combination of intellectual firepower and aggregated front line White House national security experience.

People seemed to get how "cool" Josh Marshall's table was -- situated in the far outer ring of the giant ballroom. His was a "new media" table with two of the most important thinkers and doers in national security in the modern era sitting with one of the most powerful national security practitioners in the incumbent White House. Brzezinski and Scowcroft are serious players -- but they are also a lot like the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon of foreign policy. Darren Star who has helped shape cultural influences not only in the United States but globally was sitting with Josh Marshall -- who has been one of the primary agitants challenging status quo political journalism.

Denis McDonough's affability, intellect, and just overall "presence" were magnetic. It was fun to see Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough bring over many from their table which was down in the prime time center of the room to the outer ring spot we were at. Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski brought former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and actor Bradley Cooper -- one of the other unusually politically interested Hollywood stars -- over to hang out with us at table 214.

Josh Marshall, who is usually pretty circumspect about everything insiderish DC, basically saw much of the room begin to look over his way to see why the crowd began hovering over a table about as far away from the President as Pluto in the solar system. And about Kari McDonough, all I can do is gush -- seriously. She is such a non-DC type who can nonetheless handle all of the DC operators. I was pretty blown away by her, unexpectedly.

Just for the record, I need to report that Zbigniew Brzezinski turned Josh Marshall and me down for the dinner twice. On my third attempt when I reported that the table was becoming more and more interesting, he accepted and wrote:

Steve -- Re May 1st

persistence is a winning virtue, even if the win is not virtuous !

But when is the actual sitdown, so I don't have to participate in the endless milling around and mutual sniffing?

many thanks - zbig

That is pure Zbig. He hates the "mutual sniffing" but have to admit I do sort of enjoy it.

Before the dinner, I went to the Atlantic Monthly/National Journal reception and hung out with Senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, a fascinating guy who is now with Hewlett Packard but was head of feature film marketing for Disney for more than a decade (really interesting chap whose name I will put here if he sends me a note), and the Atlantic Media Group's Elizabeth Keffer, James Bennet, John Fox Sullivan and Justin Smith. General Scowcroft also spent a lot of time at the reception chatting with Darren Star and the uber-political district wired Charlie Cook and his wife.

And then I made my way down to the Newsweek Reception where Lally Weymouth was at the door meeting and greeting every single person who walked in, along with Newsweek's John Meacham. Lally pulled me in and just introduced me to five other great people in a few minutes -- really impressive.

At Newsweek, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was enjoying chatting with folks. Bradley Cooper and Darren Star checked in with each other. Interestingly, Alex Gibney -- Academy Award winning Director of Taxi to the Dark Side profiling institutionalized torture and abuse at the US-controlled Bagram Prison in Afghanistan -- had his picture taken with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Gibney's new film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, that takes on politicos on both sides of the aisle for complicity in the Jack Abramoff scandal, hits theaters on May 7th. At Newsweek, I also had an always never long enough discussion with the very best economic columnist in the world, Martin Wolf, who was down from New York with his wife to "observe" at the Financial Times table with the new FT Managing Editor Gillian Tett and DC Bureau Chief Edward Luce.

Also at the big event, we checked in with Arianna Huffington who along with HuffPost political correspondent Sam Stein had Bill Maher, Scarlet Johansson, Alec Baldwin in various orbits.

Others I checked in with were Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and his wife, journalist and author Kati Marton; Congressman Adam Schiff, Senator Christoper Dodd, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Maria Cantwell, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who left back for the city to deal with the Times Square car bomb incident shortly after we chatted); National Economic Advisor to the President Lawrence Summers; White House strategic adviser to the President David Axelrod; White House economic team members Michael Froman, Gene Sperling, Jason Fuhrman, and Austan Goolsbee; ABC's George Stephanopoulos and NBC's David Gregory, Yemen Ambassador to the US Abdulwahab Al-Hajjiri; UK Ambassador and Mrs. Nigel and Julia Sheinwald (who showed great stamina and were at every party I attended), producer Stephen Spielberg, NPR's Robert Siegel and Ari Shapiro; Asst. Secretary of State Kurt Campbell; White House speechwriter Adam Frankel and communications deputy Bill Burton.

Susan Rice's speechwriter Warren Bass was everywhere. I saw Rahm Emanuel on the main floor of the ballroom a few times -- but he didn't stop by Table 214. Valerie Jarrett was also in good form at the Vanity Fair gala at the home of French Ambassador Pierre Vimont. Some other pals included Newsweek's Michael Hirsh, the BBC's Kim Ghattas, Peter David and Zanny Minton Beddoes both with The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal's Amy Schatz. I heard that US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was there but missed her. Neera Tanden, now of the Center for American Progress, and David Frum, now not with the American Enterprise Institute, were engaged with the scene. Ana Marie Cox -- who is now political editor for GQ -- was having a lot of fun, very festive, but lost her purse. It was a busy night. . .

Earlier in the day, I attended Tammy Haddad's enormous White House Correspondents Association pre-dinner garden party -- and while many of the folks there were many of the same folks everywhere else during the weekend, I thought that she and Susan Axelrod did something very significant that deserves a real salute.

They took what could have been an otherwise merangue-ish event -- 'pretty' but not a lot of substance -- and made it really meaningful and paid tribute to CARE, focusing on maternal care issues, and Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy. Everyone received CARE post cards that they addressed to their mothers -- expressing what that person's mom had said to them that had been most important in their lives.

This may sound hokey -- but it impressed me. Tammy Haddad is a powerhouse producer in Washington and knows everyone. She can meet and greet better than the best -- but when she insisted that the enormous crowd "be quiet" and recruited some of us to be "shushers" quieting the din from people who wanted to ignore what was important and get back to who-knows-who stuff, Haddad got the place quiet and made the time and space for talking about serious health issues.

David Axelrod's spouse, Susan Axelrod, partnered with Haddad and took her time to explain what this was all about and not to race past the issues about epileptic seizures and maternal health issues that they were trying to spotlight. I was really impressed because the pressure coming from the guests was to skip the serious and just get back to the frivolous. And Axelrod and Haddad pushed all that back hard.

I'm not sure anyone will actually write about this exchange between an unruly audience and the principled wife of Barack Obama's strategic adviser as well as Haddad -- but I want to make sure it is here because these large glitzy events where the politically powerful and major stars of Hollywood mix need to have moments where something real is discussed -- and that happened at the Haddad Garden Party.

On the less serious side though, Haddad called up to the stage after Susan Axelrod three actors -- only one of whom I knew because I have some real American pop culture deficits. The only one I recognized was Glee cast member, Matthew Morrison, who is a great guy -- and who stayed out til at least 3:30 in the morning when I left him and others at the French Ambassador's home where the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party was trying to close down.

But when Haddad asked Matt Morrison what his mother had said to him when he was young that made a difference in his life, he said "she introduced me to Pez". That's right, the Pez candy (and dispensers!), which he said he is still pretty addicted to. The other guys said that their moms told them to "be what they wanted to be" or "be themselves" and all that kind of apple pie stuff. But I thought the Pez line was actually fun. And I watched Glee as part of my recovery strategy from the party today.

I have to admit that when I was trying to wait for Matthew Shephard's parents in the media room of the Human Rights Campaign dinner where President Obama spoke, I met most of the Glee cast members and Lady Gaga -- but I had never seen Glee and didn't know that I had been hearing Lady Gaga all of the time but didn't know she was the singer of those songs I heard everywhere. I've fixed this since.

MSNBC had a great party last night -- but I didn't go. For some reason, I wasn't on the list for them -- though I appear frequently on Countdown and the Rachel Maddow Show. But I heard it was excellent, and Rachel was guest bar-tending again. Zero hard feelings though.

Where I did go was the home of French Ambassador to the US Pierre Vimont who opened his amazing residence to Vanity Fair and Bloomberg. The lighting in the back garden was stunning -- and there got a chance to check in with New America Foundation Chairman and Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy.

I wish Schmidt was Secretary of State or maybe something like Secretary of the next US-collaboratively sculpted global network. He's such a 21st century Dean Acheson who simultaneously sees trends and knows what has to happen with national and international institutions. He's kind of like Bill Clinton in the sense that his DNA will not allow him not to keep bubbling over with fascinating ideas on how the world is evolving and how these developments could be channeled.

I'm not saying this to be nice to Schmidt. In fact, it only hurts me when I am generous to him. He once said years ago when the New America Foundation was evolving from its earliest stages when my friend Ted Halstead had hatched us that if "Ted and Steve don't piss me off every three months with the stuff they do, then we'll have to fire them." Anyone in the non-profit industry knows how valuable board members are who actually encourage constructive risk-taking rather than the incessant risk-aversion that characterizes many of these organizations.

I met Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon and had great chats -- that I think were helped forward with Darren Star doing the intros. Andrew Shue was there as was his sister Elizabeth Shue who was approachable and really into policy issues with her talented husband, Davis Guggenheim, who produced and directed An Inconvenient Truth, who has what I hear from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is a documentary on education, Waiting for Superman, coming out in the fall that will really shake the foundations of America's thinking about children and the opportunities we are and are not giving them in our anachronistic educational institutions.

Guggenheim got me pretty choked up when he told me about a couple of the vignettes of five students he follows as they work with their parents to make school choices - and when one young man and lots of other kids and their families are watching by lottery whether they are sent to a school where 98% of the graduates go to college vs. a school where nearly no one does -- and where kids drop out, are killed, get into drugs, and the like.

This is the kind of night that I would have liked to stay at until the sun came up. I could listen to Jonathan Alter, Davis Guggenheim and Elizabeth Shue all night. Yes, there was glitz -- but we were learning something about the educational mess this country still faces - and that made the connection between Hollywood and the political world here worth all of this.

Finally, or nearly finally, I decided that my favorite actor I met the entire night was Zach Galifianakis -- who introduced a young cool guy to me as his husband, though he wasn't. Galifianakis is just comfortable with himself and the guy is smart -- sort of honestly blunt but inquisitive. He asked me a lot about the meltdown of the Republican Party and why Republicans seemed to be making suicidal choices rather than picking "George Will-types" to save the party.

Galifianakis, the hilarious fourth in the half billion dollar earning film, The Hangover, really likes George Will (who I often do as well) -- but engaged some of us in a chat about politics, political personalities, and why trends were moving as they were. I have a lot of time for him -- and learned that the sequel to Hangover will start filming in the fall.

Galifianakis also told me that it's tough to urinate near a tiger that is just a few inches a way on a dinky leash -- and that the shot with Mike Tyson throwing a massive fist blow at his face took 45 takes.

There's more that I could add -- but what I wanted to convey beyond all of the indulgence of VIP lists, select tables, black tie and gown, meet and greet stuff at this gathering is that there were real moments of serious policy and political discussion that were not trivial.

I discussed Middle East policy, US-Cuba travel, China issues, the international economy, the choices David Petraeus faces in the future, President Obama's performance and his team, Russia, arms control, education policy, Af/Pak stuff -- lots of Af/Pak stuff, Iran, Don't Ask Don't Tell and gay marriage, Brazil and a global governance I participated in there with Senators, Congressmen, senior White House officials, Ambassadors, and Hollywood directors and stars.

When Jay Leno had finally given up trying to get laughs (this is payback for his once including me in a top ten list of people with the "worst hair" on C-Span), Darren Star and I walked through trying to find his friend Dana Delany (who I need to thank again for the ride to the Vanity Fair party), I introduced Darren to Wolf Blitzer -- who turns out has known Darren and his parents forever. Blitzer looked at Darren and then me. And then he pointed out waving his finger across the audience and said, "Darren Star -- from when he was a little kid -- Brilliant, just brlliant. . .ten times more brilliant than any of the folks in this room."

Blitzer is probably right -- though adding Josh Marshal, McDonough, Brzezinski, and Scowcroft to the table with Darren probably made it one of the higher octane collectives in the house.

Thanks to Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic Monthly team, Newsweek and Lally Weymouth, the New Yorker and David Remnick (who hosted one of the best parties I've been to the night before at the W Hotel), CNN/Time (who had another great reception) Vanity Fair and Bloomberg, Tamara Haddad and her husband Ted Greenberg -- and MSNBC (indirectly) as well as many great friends interspersed through all of this for an incredible weekend.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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