WASHINGTON -- The economy may be collapsing, but any thought that the financial crisis would prompt George W. Bush to cut back on his entertainment budget vanished pretty quickly yesterday afternoon -- there on the table in the East Room, for the first of two White House Christmas parties for the press, was what looked like the largest mound of shrimp ever assembled for human consumption.
An annual tradition for years, the parties for the press are more or less the same as the other couple dozen events the White House hosts around the holidays: lots of food, open bars, and a line to pose for a picture with the host and hostess. By December, the job of president of the United States mostly consists of "stand around and smile." Bush hosts two receptions a day most days from the first week of the month through the end of this one, for constituents, lawmakers, staff and other groups. (The main difference, presumably, is that the guests are slightly nerdier and more awkward when they're all from the media than when they come from more respectable lines of work.)
Though other agencies also sometimes throw some sort of holiday shindig for the reporters who cover them, the whole thing is pretty bizarre, and more than a little unseemly. At the other agencies, at least there's usually a chance to actually talk to the officials in charge, which could theoretically help reporters do their jobs better. The setup is usually pretty no-frills at other places, too; the Department of Homeland Security had a reception in its lobby a few years ago, for instance, featuring Costco snacks, cheap wine in plastic cups and senior officials who you usually couldn't dream of talking to without going through the communications staff.
The White House, of course, is a little different. While the president was there, he and Laura Bush spent the entire time on the first floor posing for pictures. There seemed to be very few senior staffers wandering around, so the party was useless for actually reporting on anything. The invitations admit a reporter and a guest, so there were spouses, parents, children, nieces, etc., everywhere. Most people in the crowd sort of stood around talking to each other, making jokes about the death of the news business and how friends and family members were already angling to take the "and guest" spots for next year's party (with a slightly more popular host, of course), and also wondering why no one made you take your shoes off before coming in.
But as the White House is glad to boast, the building is a little more impressive-looking than most government offices, and you don't have to be a media critic to realize the potential P.R. benefits of having the party. There were models of the place made out of chocolate, and enough Christmas trees that Bush could set up a nice side business selling them over the next week and still not run out. (Somewhere off in a corner, there was a menorah and some Hanukah decorations, but as we've all learned by now, this administration doesn't really do ecumenical that well.) There were lamb chops, and Virginia ham, and -- according to a press release from the Office of the First Lady -- "An Assortment of American Artisanal Cheeses served with a Display of Crackers, Winter Fruits, and Spiced Pecans." You could probably teach an advanced course on journalism ethics just on the sheer quantity of the egg nog available. Of course, anyone who's turned on cable news in the last few days probably knows just what the decorations looked like -- the "Barney cam" video has been in heavy rotation, just another way the White House manages to find a soft-focus lens during the holiday season.
All in all, the party was one of those ridiculous events that has become so commonplace in Washington over the years that no one here even thinks about them anymore. Though the reporters there ranged, in terms of friendliness to the Bush administration, from Hearst's Helen Thomas to National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne, anyone who wandered in from outside the Beltway would have been aghast, and it would have been hard to convince them that they shouldn't have been. Very few people there, though, seemed to think there was any reason to be embarrassed of the spectacle of reporters posing for pictures with the president. It's easy to see why the White House thinks these things are worth putting on. It's harder and harder to see why the media still agrees.