The White House Correspondent’s Dinner-industrial complex has grown exponentially over time. Besides the dinner itself, the most high-profile annual social event in Washington, D.C., there are days of “nerd prom” events planned throughout the District — before and after the main event.
All the ramp-up parties hosted the week of, by the likes of Tinder and Google. The brunches on Saturday. The pre-parties on Saturday evening. The watch parties for those who can’t get in. The after parties Saturday night all around the city. The day-after “hangover brunches” on Sunday.
At the official ABC pre-party in the basement of the Washington Hilton Saturday evening, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright acknowledged that the correspondent’s dinner and all the hoopla that now surrounds it have grown over the years.
“I used to come 25, 30 years ago, and it was much smaller,” Albright told NPR. “It’s just different, very different. And I think people like coming and either looking at people or being looked at.”
She’s right. So much looking, and so much picture taking. Madeleine Albright herself, selfie-ing with Scandal star Kerry Washington. Celebrity DJ Steve Aoki selfie-ing with comedian and Obama anger translator Keegan-Michael Key. “It’s pretty epic so far,” Aoki said. “It’s overwhelming. This is not my world at all.”
There’s reality TV star and Trump supporter Omarosa Manigault taking a phone from MSNBC host Chris Matthews to help him take more photos. Will Smith walking the red carpet, taking a selfie with all the photographers there, while they took photos of him taking the selfie. It’s hard to tell who the politicos are and who the fans are and who the celebrities are when everyone wants to be in everybody’s picture.
You could see this all as obscene excess — the establishment one-percent congratulating itself while the rest of the country languishes in a populist funk.
The very idea of “nerd prom” suggests it’s a party for people who shouldn’t really even be having a party. WHCD could be D.C. at its worst, or depending on how you look at it, D.C. at its best.
For Katie Caperones, a D.C. local who came to the lobby of the Hilton last night to people watch, it all made sense. “Because politics and Hollywood are almost the same thing now,” she told NPR. “The way that politics gets covered is like how Hollywood gets covered.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. At the same time, just outside the Hilton, a few dozen protesters gathered to raise awareness of the plight of civilians in Syria, as that country’s civil war continues. “We’re here today because in the past 48 hours more than two hospitals [in Syria] were bombed directly by aerial attacks,” Mouaz Moustafa said, as police officers and yellow caution tape kept him away from the celebration. “The United States’ policy remains silent about the deaths of many, many civilians… We are here to make everyone that’s having a good time listen, and to remember that while we sit here and we dine and we joke, people and children are dying everyday.”
Such is nerd prom in Washington DC. An exercise in extremes. Protesters next to a party. Self-admitted nerds next to celebrities. So much excess, it makes sense to have so many events.
Even though they weren’t stars at the official dinner, Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, parading hip-hop producer DJ Khaled through the throngs, arm-in-arm, while a servant of some sort held an umbrella over her head, could have been the night’s best celebrity coupling. “He was the biggest star in the room,” Huffington said of her guest. “Everybody wanted selfies with him, pictures with him. Amazing.”
More amazing are all the people who sill celebrate WHCD even though they can’t actually get in. Ball gowns are purchased and tuxedos are rented just to attend ancillary events like the Politico watch party just down the street, or perhaps the most popular event of the night, The Onion‘s “Diamond Joe Biden’s Badass Balls-To-The-Wall Fiesta” held at The Newseum.
That event was in the spirit of The Onion‘s satirical depiction of the current Vice President, washing a Trans Am on the front lawn of the White House, or wearing a ponytail to the presidential inauguration. Attendees could take a picture with a shirtless Joe Biden cutout placed next to an empty pack of cigarettes and an unexplained pair of red panties, or walk through a fake Biden museum featuring his first marijuana joint. (NOTE: To be clear, the entire marijuana joint storyline was made up by The Onion.)
Chad Nackers, head writer at The Onion, and one of the creators of “Diamond Joe,” said the persona he made for the Vice President isn’t true at all, and that’s why it works. “He’s straight-edge,” he said. “He’s totally straight-edge. He doesn’t drink!”
While a string quartet played 80’s rock hits, Nackers admitted that it is a bit ironic that one of the hottest tickets in town WHCD night would be put on by a fake news site, celebrating a caricature. When asked if it meant that The Onion was itself becoming establishment, he said, “Hell no. I think it’s great. I love it.”
For personal finance guru Suze Orman, who held court at multiple parties through the night, the entire scene is good — a chance for Washington to be something approaching its truest, kindest self.
“I think people play their roles very well on television,” she said, in between snapping selfies with fans. “I think when the TV comes off, everybody likes everybody,” commenting on the fact that at events like these you often see Republicans glad-handing with Democrats. “And I think they’re all good people… When it comes down to it, they’re nothing but people trying to make a buck.”
And for this crowd, part of making that buck is remaining famous, and being seen. Whether a Hollywood or D.C. celebrity, nights like WHCD might be a requirement for personal brand maintenance. And not just nights, but the days of run-up, and pre-, and post-, and reception. The entire WHCD-industrial complex.
Maybe it’s not a party for all these people. Maybe it’s just part of the job.