- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2013

It’s become oddly fashionable to bash the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the giddy juxtaposition of journalists, Hollywood celebrities and strategically-minded operatives that arrives in the nation’s capital each spring, just like the circus. Critics claim the annual event has become commercialized, off-message and unbecoming. Indeed, 3,000 “correspondents” vie for attention on Saturday as the network cameras roll for hours on end; C-SPAN, in fact, starts its august coverage in mid-afternoon.

Why should Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Jon Bon Jovi attend the big event? Well, why shouldn’t they? It is humbling. They too will drift along the jammed, glittering hallways of the host hotel this year just like everyone else, negotiating security checkpoints, lofty escalators and the gawk-alistas.

But then, behold the frisson of power. National Rifle Association president David Keene and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will also be there; both are guests of The Washington Times, along with National Security Agency deputy director Chris Inglis and National pitcher Gio Gonzalez.

Imagine. Miss Streisand and Mr. Keane at the very same party.

There is value in this.

It is a cultural moment of considerable magnitude, and one that is unique to this event, which is no mere gaudy exercise. Since its small beginning in 1920, the Correspondents Dinner has been a showcase for luminaries from all sectors of the political spectrum. And for a few hours, anyway, they put aside their squabbles, dine on savory fare and toast the glories of bipartisanship. Every president who has ever addressed the crowded ballroom acknowledges that just for the night, ferocious differences are forgotten, and all’s well.

The event still has a good-humored dynamic going for it.

“I’m not going to stand up here and deliver one of those worn-out, sentimental homilies about the press and the presidency. Neither of us would believe it,” Ronald Reagan told the crowd during his last appearance at the dinner in 1986. “What I hope my epitaph will be with the White House correspondents, what every president’s epitaph should be with the press is this: He gave as good as he got. And that I think will make for a healthy press and a healthy presidency.”

But wait, there’s more. The dinner is also a viable fundraiser for journalism scholarships, it’s good for the local economy and for the most part, it does not inspire, say, catfights in the ladies room, stage diving or food throwing.

So it’s got that going for it.

And about that C-SPAN coverage. It starts at 3 p.m., just when thousands of guests are eyeing their formal wear and making ready to head downtown to make a 6 p.m. cocktail hour. It is no easy task. The crush of limousines, TV trucks and law enforcement vehicles that surround the hotel is a veritable obstacle course, particularly for women teetering along Connecticut Avenue in heels fit for the boudoir.

The public affairs network, meanwhile, will be airing historical footage of previous dinners in their lead-up to the main events, which include a much ballyhooed red carpet walk, which fires up around 6 p.m., and the actual dinner, which begins at 7:30. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC will also offer red carpet-y coverage, plus the evening’s speeches, beginning around 9 p.m.

The E! Network — attuned to red carpets and fashion police of every persuasion — will cover celebrity arrivals for the first time this year.

“Hollywood is taking on D.C.,” notes Mariah Haas, an online correspondent for the network. “Marc Malkin and Alicia Quarles will be manning the carpet and interviewing some of the biggest stars attending, next to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, of course.”

Ms. Haas notes that “celebs expected” include Kevin Spacey, Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington, Sofia Vergara and the evening’s comedic entertainer Conan O’Brien.

Of small historic significance: Mr. O’Brien hosted the event in another century, appearing as a 30-something upstart at the 1995 dinner during the Clinton administration.

“Congressmen, please refrain from switching parties during dinner,” he told the crowd.

Mr. Spacey has reason to be among the polticos. He is, after all, starring in “House of Cards,” a successful political thriller now going into its second season on Netflix. Ditto for former “Seinfeld” mainstay Julia Louis Dreyfus. She is the thespian pointwoman for “VEEP,” the smirky HBO comedy also going into its second season.

The dinner itself goes off like a controlled demolition.

There’s salad often adorned with things like green apple slices and studded with startling things like blue cheese or walnuts. The main course usually combines a delicate round of sea bass and a filet mignon gussied up with a wine reduction; there’s baby vegetables and some sort of molded potato extravaganza. Dessert in these times offers a combination of little tarts balancing raspberry something with chocolate something and lemon something. The coffee is excellent, the service is amazingly brisk considering that 3,000 people are waiting for their chocolate somethings.

Surely all good Americans want to know: are the guests drunk? Will they put on a floor show themselves, or fall off their chairs?

No. The guests are not drunk.

A few may be “a little tiddly,” as great aunts said, once upon a time. Something bigger than all of them prevents bad behavior.

There is presidential decorum at work here. The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Corps band and a military color guard are present — which does not inspire many people to get reckless. Besides, it is an early evening, with official proceedings ending about 10 p.m. There are many more parties to come for those with an inclination, or an invitation to such fare. And more events on Sunday. And business as usual on Monday.

And while former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has garnered considerable press for declaring that the dinner itself has been “ruined” by the presence of edgy starlet Lindsay Lohan and her ilk, at least host-with-the-most Mr. O’Brien appears philosophical about it all.
He’s charged with the formidable task of wrangling this larger-than-life crowd into submission, just long enough to hear a few one-liners.

“In D.C. to perform at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Practicing my opening ‘Goofy Sunglasses’ bit,” Mr. O’Brien noted in a Tweet, some 24 hours before countdown.

And that is preparation enough.

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