U.S President Barack Obama waves at the Centro Cultural La Moneda Palace before his speech to Latin America in Santiago, Chile, Monday March 21, 2011. Obama is in Chile as part of a three-country, five-day tour of Latin America. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia) (AP)

The "prom" you weren't invited to

The annual White House Correspondents Dinner is here again


Natasha Lennard
April 29, 2011 9:11PM (UTC)

Had enough of state pageantry? Too bad! Because royal wedding hysteria finishes just in time for the White House Correspondents Dinner.

This Saturday brings A-list celebrities, reporters and politicians to Washington for a night of ribbing with the president and a top comedian host (this year, SNL's Seth Meyers). The faint line in the sand between the fourth estate and the executive branch disintegrates in the midst of lavish pre- and after-parties, and it's supposed to be funny.

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Even the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, a paragon of the Beltway journalism establishment, had some critical words on the spectacle Friday:

Cee Lo Green sings for us. Seth Meyers tells us jokes. Lindsay Lohan’s ex, Samantha Ronson, is our DJ. All the cool kids -- Sean Penn, Kate Hudson, Steven Tyler, Paula Abdul, Courteney Cox, David Byrne and Bristol Palin -- want to party with us. A Johnnie Walker "cigar tent" furnishes us with scotch and hand-rolled stogies. We are handed Fiji water, or Grey Goose vodka, to slake our thirsts, and Sea Terra Organics Vanilla Body Butters to soothe our pores…

… The correspondents' association dinner was a minor annoyance for years, when it was a 'nerd prom' for journalists and a few minor celebrities. But, as with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control. Now, awash in lobbyist and corporate money, it is another display of Washington’s excesses.

Milbank notes the sheer absurdity that his paper has invited Donald Trump as one of its guests, the same week that Trump's birther antics made headline after headline.

This highlights the fact that the WHCD represents something more pernicious than just over-opulence. The idea of the dinner itself is for the president to poke fun at the media, himself and fellow politicians, followed by a comedian who offers up some more political satire.

Seth Meyers, this year's host, told Politico's Patrick Gavin that he thinks the event -- the institutionalized roast -- is a "such a terrifically American undertaking." He said he is excited but nervous to perform in front of such a room: "I'm in the service of my country. And that’s the way I’m going to look at it."

But one of the criticisms of the WHCD is that is reflects the D.C. journalism world's belief that simply making fun of and laughing at our leaders over food and drink is the same thing as actually critiquing them. In this sense, it may be worth remembering the dinner's most infamous moment, back in 2004, when George W. Bush joked about being unable to find WMDs ... and the crowd laughed:

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Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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