Careful With the Butter: Scenes From the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Testimonials from two decades of Washington, D.C.’s weirdest night.
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White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2009. (Photo: angela n./Flickr)

White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2009. (Photo: angela n./Flickr)

Let’s begin by acknowledging that this column—a compendium of journalists talking about other journalists—is destined to eat its own tail, and possibly its top hat as well. The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the sexiest ticket in a very un-sexy town. Sequins bloom like cherry-blossoms; the tuxedo makes cub reporters feel like James Bond; gossip columnists emerge from various mid-Atlantic newsrooms to see whether the president’s bodyman is bringing someone recognizable this time. On the daïs, students and national reporters accept awards and share a grip-and-grin with the commander-in-chief plus a gauntlet of functionaries, largely caucasian men from the White House Correspondents’ Association. The Hilton’s tables are rounded with moneymen, lawyers, senators, movie stars, all of whom smile and drink through stand-up routines from the president and from guest comedians (again, even in the last 20 years, almost exclusively white men; Joel McHale of Community is this year’s entry).

Even with a good host, the comedy can feel like fiddling while Rome burns; or, as Foster Kamer and Kat Stoeffel reported in an excellent 2012 piece, fiddling as Abbottabad burned. Really, one of the richest pleasures of this strange spring ritual is rereading the classics of WHCD reporting, including Michael Dolan’s masterpiece on the 1992 dinner in the Washington City Paper. And you should definitely revisit photos from the evening’s golden era, the 1940s and ’50s, when hosts included Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Cagney.

Despite exhaustive coverage of the event, certain worthy moments have yet to see publication. In anticipation of Sunday’s dinner, we present a bouncy and joyously incomplete oral history of the last two decades of WHCDs—impressions and anecdotes sent by friends, friends of friends, and friends of our enemies’ friends.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL

Congressional Reporter, Time; Formerly Bloomberg News

One year, I think it was 2003, I was at a table with Jesse Palmer, a football player who was the forthcoming Bachelor, and Anne Kruger, the longtime No. 2 at the International Monetary Fund. Kruger clearly didn't watch much television and had never heard of the show. It was beyond entertaining to watch Palmer try and explain the premise of the show to a woman old enough to be his mother. Kruger clearly felt that Palmer must be desperate if he was resorting to appearing on a TV show to find true love. She offered to introduce him to her two nieces.

JACK SHAFER

Reuters Media Correspondent; Former Columnist and Editor, Washington City Paper

What I recall is spending most of my time with my friends and enemies from the Washington Times, a publication whose owner, convicted felon Reverend Sun Myung Moon, I tortured frequently in my press column. I introduced myself to the paper's editor, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and his wife, and attempted a few pleasantries. Arnaud, sounding like Jeremy Irons, looked up to me—he's an adorable 5'3" or something—and waved slowly with the back of his hand and said, "Yes, Alexandra, do meet Jack Shafer, he fills his publication with lies," drawing out the last word like a Bond villain.

I was never prouder of City Paper.

JOSEPH FARAH

CEO and Editor, WorldNetDaily

I’ll never forget the time back in the late 1990s when Matt Drudge, Larry Klayman, and I all approached Hillary Clinton at the dais. It was right around the time the Monica Lewinsky affair was exploding. You should have seen the Secret Service react like cats!

I don’t go to these shindigs any more. The turning point for me was when the organizers refused to allow us to purchase even one table. That same year they sold four tables to the Huffington Post. The message: We don’t like your kind around here.

JENNY ROGERS

Assistant Managing Editor, Washington City Paper; Former Gossip Columnist, Washington Examiner

I first attended the dinner as one of the scholarship winners in 2010. I was more easily impressed with celebrities back then and actually asked Kevin Eubanks if he would pose for a photo with me. I also hugged Michelle Obama and told Anna Kendrick where the bathroom was located. My subsequent dinners, which I attended as a reporter, slid considerably downhill. In 2012, I found myself trapped on a red carpet at a Capitol File party at the Newseum. And I do mean trapped—reporters were not allowed off the red carpet, not to get a drink and certainly not to mingle with the real guests. While waiting an hour to interview Claire Danes, I talked to noted notables like Sookie's brother from True Blood and Omar Epps, who refused to answer most of my questions. Claire Danes finally arrived and blew me off, and I do not forgive her.

Probably the nicest person I met during any WHCD events was Reggie Love, who graciously answered a few dumb questions of mine about his pocket square during a party at David Bradley's house.

HUNTER RIDGWAY

Chief of Staff, Congressman Matt Cartwright (PA-17); Former Chief of Staff, Representative John W. Oliver (MA-01); Longtime Democratic Operative

The dinner at this point is such a fancy deal that the media gets its own media coverage—the media's covering itself in double layers. I do believe this night is the one annual thing that is turning Washington into Hollywood. The stargazing and trying to get your pictures taken with Hollywood personalities has taken over part of the thinking, so professionals in Washington who usually don't care about those things start caring. It’s an exception to the wonky culture of D.C. where the highest honor is to be anonymous, overpaid, underworked—that's a point of pride. But there's this one weekend when everyone turns into a different kind of animal. That transformation is a very interesting event. Washington's Academy Awards. Let’s call it that.

FRANKLIN RAFF

Former Producer, The G. Gordon Liddy Show; CEO, Raff Radio

I have been to three White House Correspondents' Dinners and other than conversations with nominally famous people, I found the guests to be unusually rude. Here you have a room filled with well-lubricated, self-important people who are asked from time to time to be quiet and listen to the speakers. They do not. Also, oddly, whereas George W. Bush was roundly lambasted by the media as a "trigger-happy cowboy," "idiot," etc., I was surprised to see him so adored at the last of his dinners. Finally there are the after-parties and their "quiet" invitations. It is impossible to hire a car on this "adult prom" night, so I was pleased to have been invited to celebrate aboard Greta van Susteren's magnificent wooden Trumpy SOPHIE, which was in a slip at the Gangplank Marina in SW Washington—just down the dock from my own wooden boat AMANTHA!

ANONYMOUS

White House Correspondent

In 2004, Ben Affleck was the star guest everyone was trying to cozy up to. At the Bloomberg after party, he was holding court with a bunch of political journalists. The hour was late and much alcohol had been imbibed by all. Affleck was appalled that a couple of the journalists were not planning to vote in the 2004 election. He offered to drive them to the polls himself. The journalists declined, saying they did vote in municipal and state elections, just not on a federal level given that these were the politicians they covered every day. Affleck scoffed at the notion of impartiality: It's easy, he said, to keep your personal and professional lives separate. Really? Replied one of the journalists, so that movie with did with Jennifer Lopez, Gigli, you managed to keep that strictly professional, huh? Affleck started to defend himself when suddenly a female voice interceded: "Mr. Affleck will no longer be answering questions tonight." It was his publicist, who'd been standing behind him the whole time. She ushered him out of the party and that was that.

MAURA JUDKIS

Reporter, Washington Post’s Weekend Section

The WHCD pre-parties often feel like a celebrity petting zoo, but that's never been more apparent than when an animal upstaged all of the other guests. It will be hard to top the 2012 appearance of Uggie, the dog from The Artist, who walked the red carpet in a teeny little tuxedo and turned everyone's Twitter feeds into mush.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI

Editor in Chief, Roll Call

Whether you have a good time depends completely on who you’re sitting next to. My first year I sat next to Justice Antonin Scalia, and, as an Italian woman with an interest in politics and the Supreme Court, I thought I'd have a fascinating conversation. Um, not the case. Not the world's best dinner date, and I'll leave it at that. Another year, I sat next to Darius Rucker, and of course every single person who came up to the table called him “Hootie,” and he was really offended. If you're going to approach a celebrity, know something about them. Don’t tell Zach Galifianakis he’s “the guy from the Hangover.” One year I sat next to Darren Star, creator of Sex and the City, biggest celebrity so far I've sat with. You'd be surprised at how many people came to meet him, and Bradley Cooper came over to talk. I asked to take a picture with him. Just like that, he did a selfie of him and me—this is back in 2010, before selfies were a thing, right? And I was so touched. And finally I spent a few years sitting next to people whose names nobody knows. One was Obama's staff secretary and then his director of travel advance for the campaign, and both of those ended up being my favorite dinner dates because we had real conversations, they shared real things that were useful for me as a journalist. I've called on them since.

MATT PEARCE

National Reporter, the Los Angeles Times

This is back in 2011—I was one of the University of Missouri students who was a scholarship winner (ostensibly who the dinner is actually held for, but you know!). By the night of the dinner, I had spent a couple of months interning in D.C. as an investigative reporter at a little outlet called the Watchdog Institute, and I was thoroughly horrified by the slime beneath every rock at that point. Well, I had conflicting feelings about doing the dinner, since I felt strongly that reporters shouldn't schmooze with their subjects—but of course, I wasn't going to not go, because I'd like to experience everything at least once.

Anyway, we went to the dinner and stared at all the famous people, I almost knocked into Arianna Huffington, I chatted with John Hamm, shook hands with Jake Tapper. I had a couple cocktails, met Obama for, like, 10 seconds—well, it all goes to your head. It was fun, and memorable, and still I felt a bit weird about all of it.

But the image that may stick with me the longest from that night was all the award recipients crossing the stage, shaking hands with about a dozen famous journalists, Seth Meyers (this was the year he roasted Trump), Obama again. Headrush-y stuff.

Then we left the stage and headed back out toward our tables through the crowd, feeling finally and firmly irrelevant for the rest of the night. And yet: After our big moment was over, I could see a small man out in the middle of the huge sea of tables—the only person standing, far from the lights—to humbly congratulate each and every student as we passed. It was Steve Buscemi.

FOSTER KAMER

Senior Editor, Complex

So I gotta admit, there's nothing I wanted to cover more as a media reporter than the WHCD, because if you're covering it as you should be covering it, you have every reason to antagonize the people sitting at those tables and going into that dinner in just such wildly smug self-regard. Most of those people—when confronted with this facet, just the sheer grossness of it all—are completely in denial. It's a wonderful litmus test of sorts, for media people, and for media reporters. Don't get me wrong, the New York Times' stance on the matter is also incredibly smug, but it's genuinely correct, and the greatest example of that was the dinner's reaction to Colbert's routine (when attendees were absolutely beside themselves in a fit of self-righteous piety).

So, yeah, I got to cover it once, and it still ranks fairly well among the out and out weirdest nights of my life. For example: Of all the people I had to get quotes from, you know who was the absolute nicest, least crass, and most sincere? Sarah Palin. At the MSNBC party. And mind you, I think Sarah Palin generally represents the absolute zero for cynical, exploitative politics. But she was a sweetheart, really. She genuinely stuck out in a room with Sean Penn and Rachel Maddow and Phil Griffin and Michael Stipe—which, that's the WHCD: those people, all in the same room, not saying shit to each other after entire careers made out of shit-talking—because she was just plainly nice. It didn't make me like her or respect her or reconsider her so much as it did the ostensibly "smart" people in the room. That's the WHCD: Palin is the coolest person in the same room as this guy, and how awful is that? Ugh.

My favorite moment was when Eleanor Clift got an entire plate of room temperature butter spilled on her in the Hay Adams penthouse during some brunch we ended up at the next day. We're not talking, like, a single pad of butter, but the Hindenberg disaster of butter. She was just staring at it in horror until someone from the catering staff came to help wipe her down. I made no attempt to hide the fact that I found this funny and told Kat [Stoeffel] if it didn't make our piece none of this was worth it (aside from the emails she got from Bill Keller and Dean Baquet, which remain priceless). When we found out Osama bin Laden was killed that night my first thought was, "I really hope this doesn't mean the Eleanor Clift butter thing will never be read." Alas, the forces of good won out.

Two quotes I loved that never made our Observer piece simply for space reasons—this is Jake Tapper, the Octagon himself:

This is such a nerdy town. This is not Manhattan. This is not Los Angeles. This is a town full of overachieving nerds. And there are not a lot of party nights, especially for people like me, who are middle-aged and in bed by 9:30.

Look, when I was a scrappy Washington City Paper alternative-weekly reporter and when I was at Salon.com, I know what it looked like. It looked like a bunch of people who are far too comfortable with themselves, and far too cozy. And all I can tell you is, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, but I still understand the perception. This is generally hard-working people taking a night to recognize some hard work.

Those are real quotes that got pushed out of the first draft we wrote because of the bin Laden news that ended up taking over much of the narrative. And the second quote is so rich, right? It's someone who used to find it despicable, who finally got invited, and who managed to find it less despicable thereafter. The takeaway is either (A) that some really do go from being outside to being inside and genuinely finding it really harmless or inoffensive, or (B) someone going from outside to being inside and finding it harmless and inoffensive. In a way, that's the entire meta-narrative of the WHCD and "success" in media to a certain degree.

This isn't all to say that I don't think there may be some truth to what Tapper's saying: That it may really be harmless. But I think the dark side to that, and the side that's harder for all the Monday morning QBs to see, is that it's really not an exceptional night. The fact of the matter is that so many influential reporters are (almost inherently as a by-product of becoming so influential) already too cozy and too responsive to the wills of their sources, and too couched in compromise. And the forward-facing product of that comes out in major newspapers and television reports every single day (and this is especially terrifying/bad when it comes to intelligence/national security reporters and certain sectors of finance reporters). The only difference with the WHCD, really, is that you're seeing that coziness take place in public one night a year.

MIKE MADDEN

Editor, Washington City Paper

In 2002, when I worked for Gannett's Washington bureau, I was the print White House pool reporter on the day of the dinner, which sounds cool, but really, it means all the drudgery of the event (the speeches, the self-importance of everyone there, the weird chumminess between the press and the president) and absolutely none of the glamour. Considering the glamour is pretty thin to begin with, that's saying something. Instead of dining and drinking at a ballroom table a few feet from some celebrity, the pool got deposited in chairs by the stage and shared a couple of trays of sandwiches with the Secret Service in a back room. I do remember having a decent view of Ozzy Osbourne, at the peak of his MTV-driven, then-newly revived popularity, as he received admirers before the program started.

We did get to leave as soon as Bush finished speaking, the Secret Service making everyone more or less jog through the hotel lobby back to the motorcade (it was, after all, only eight months after 9/11), but then I had to go back to the White House and wait for official word to be given that the president was in for the night before I could go back to my apartment, which at the time was about three blocks south of the Hilton, drop off my laptop, and try to find people to fail to crash after-parties with. The Bloomberg pooler, meanwhile, had said her bosses had arranged to put her on the list for her organization's party, which at the time was considered the coolest one, in exchange for working that night, but I recall seeing her going back and forth with a clipboard-toting minion outside of it at some point. I didn't get in, myself—though I did expense all my drinks at the Hilton bar after trying. Thanks, Gannett stockholders.

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