No one gets lucky at Washington’s prom

The White House Correspondents' Dinner isn't what's wrong with politics. It's what's wrong with D.C.

Topics: Barack Obama, Media Criticism, Washington, D.C., White House Correspondents' Dinner,

No one gets lucky at Washington's promPresident Barack Obama high-fives Jimmy Kimmel as Caren Bohan, a Reuters journalist and president of the White House Correspondents' Association, looks on, Saturday, April 28, 2012(Credit: AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Every year the White House Correspondents’ Dinner inspires two competing varieties of coverage: celebrity-obsessed fawning and angry tirades about how it represents everything twisted about our broken democracy. It doesn’t, really. The majority membership of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is a much better example of how awful and broken our democracy is. The Washington Post editorial page better illustrates how worthless and co-opted our establishment press is. Yes, it’s an event where vile war criminals like Henry Kissinger are feted and celebrated, but you know where else vile war criminals like Henry Kissinger are celebrated? Literally everywhere they go. The Correspondents’ Dinner is just an awkward roast preceded and followed by depressing parties.

The evening is a result of the fact, feature or bug, that our nation’s capital is located well outside our nation’s media, entertainment and financial capitals, forcing those who call the political capital home and consider themselves terribly important to prove their importance by tricking actual famous and important people into attending a party much lamer than a random Wednesday night back where they live. It’s an anachronistic celebratory dinner for the D.C. political journalism industry that became a TV event, or pseudo-event, completely disconnected from journalism. (The journalists don’t even go to the dinner. No media outlet would waste an expensive seat on a measly reporter.)

They call it Nerd Prom, which is not remotely accurate. Political journalists, socially inept or no, are not nerds. Most of them can’t do math, a fact that campaigns and politicians regularly exploit.

This year, the president delivered some funny jokes about how he once ate a dog. He killed. (Do other democracies do this? I’m honestly asking. Does Australia’s PM have to deliver a stand-up routine to a frigid crowd of media executives and Australian soap opera stars once a year?) Jimmy Kimmel, the professional entertainment, did his best with pretty good material and a cold crowd. (The crowd always fawns over the president’s routine and nearly always greets the professional comedian with stony silence, because the comedian is an interloper. This is part of what happened to Stephen Colbert in 2006.) There are people who are thrilled that the comedian made jokes about the president and people who are mad that the comedian didn’t make enough jokes about the president.



Then came the after parties, which are why people in Washington actually get excited for this thing. The bit you see on TV doesn’t actually matter, to anyone. The only reason anyone rents a tux is for open bars and chances to look or maybe even talk to famous people. The Bloomberg Party and the Vanity Fair Party helpfully merged a while back, making that the party for officially important people to brag about getting into. Even if you, professionally, hate politics and politicians and think D.C. should be blasted off the face of the earth or at least paved over and replaced with a giant toll road to a charter school, it is fun to see famous people and drink drinks. (And R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens, that bomb-throwing iconoclast who always held the hippest party of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.)

Michael Dolan wrote a very early version of the gimlet-eyed take on the dinner and the scene that surrounds it, in a 1992 Washington City Paper story that Jack Shafer recently republished at his site. The dinner was in the midst of morphing from a sort of private little party for the D.C. media elite to cozy up with sources into the vaguely national television event it is today:

For years, the crowd consisted mainly of faces known only to those who covered them, but that has changed with the infusion of massive amounts of celebriticity. In the mid-’80s, newsrooms with a self-promotional bent began pitching correspondents’ dinner invites at folks with no association to the news except a desire to be in it.

Now that’s what everyone does. Greta Van Susteren this year invited Lindsay Lohan and Fox News itself invited Kim Kardashian, as if to prove just how much contempt they have for all of us. The New Yorker has lately begun inviting celebrities who straddle the line between hip and overexposed. (Last year: Jon Hamm, Zach Galifianakis, the Coen brothers. This year: Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jason Schwartzman and Aziz Ansari.) The New York Times has wisely avoided the dinner since 2007.

The celebrity invitee arms race is the most degrading element of the entire spectacle. C-SPAN’s valiant attempt to serve the public by holding a camera up to Washington once again had the unintended consequence of making Washington even more insufferable.

It would probably save everyone a lot of embarrassment if they just canceled the damn thing forever, but then Washington reporters would never have a chance to be in the same room as George Clooney, and that is really what gets them up in the morning.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>