“It’s not the best time in the world to be a White House correspondent,” said Bill Plante on the sultry afternoon of Saturday, April 26. This was at Tammy Haddad’s annual pre-White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner lawn party. The blooming wisteria was strangling the woods that surround her house.
These nearly-over final four years of George W. Bush are Mr. Plante’s third second-term presidency in his years as CBS White House correspondent. “I guess he could still drop a bomb somewhere—there are people who think he means to do it,” Mr. Plante said. “He’s still important, but he ceases to be the center of attention.”
Mr. Bush gets that. His performance at the dinner that night, which is a worrisome gathering of journalists and sources, would be largely a retrospective clip show of his star turns at dinners past. Not included: his infamous and ill-considered “looking for weapons of mass destruction” skit from 2004.
(He never found them, for one obvious reason, and yet we are still at war over it.)
“As you get into the final year, the wheels start to come off,” Mr. Plante said. “The root of it is always the same. The president loses his mojo.”
“The story of the Bush administration has really taken a dip,” said David Gregory, host of MSNBC’s Race for the White House, and formerly a White House correspondent himself. “Everyone is looking forward to a new administration because it will be a great story again.”
So the Bush story is now dead to the press, even while the war, his grandest contribution to this tale, has entered elementary-school age. But the real D.C. narrative—that of a Southern city through which billions of dollars quickly flow—is not generally thrown off by something as small as a war, and everyone was there to party, from the new acting head of Freud Communications, Lisa Dallos, to CNN’s Jessica Yellin to some raucous fellas from Qorvis, which represents Halliburton, the “Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform” and the fine government of Saudi Arabia.
“This is the center of the universe,” said Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund. But too many want in on the grift. Nearby, MSNBC analyst (and West Wing writer) Lawrence O’Donnell made a sour face. “Look at this,” he said, gesturing at the crowd at Tammy Haddad’s. “It’s such a gigantic, horrible subway car.”
“Well, Pennsylvania was great!” said Hillary Clinton for President chair Terry McAuliffe. “And now Indiana … ”
“I don’t know who’s here,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “There used to be a time when you walked across the lawn and said, ‘Hi, Jack!’ But really. Who are these people?”
And where did they come from?
“People at Newsweek are so frightfully bored of each other that they don’t want to have to talk to one another at the table, so now they’ll invite anyone,” he said.
“There’s a see-and-be-seen aspect to this where your existence is somewhat validated by being seen with people that are perceived as being important,” said Washington Post/CNN half-timer Howard Kurtz.
“Very boring times,” a guy said to Alan Greenspan, sarcastically.
“That fat fuck threw me out of a piece,” said The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash, pointing to a publicist.
“That guy’s a pimp right over there,” said Mr. O’Donnell, pointing to Dennis Hof. “I’m serious, he’s a pimp. We used to have a no-pimp policy.”
The large Mr. Hof runs the Bunny Ranch, a legit bordello made famous by HBO. “I saw lots of clients at this party,” Mr. Hof said. “Lots of ’em.”
Andrea Mitchell of NBC and her husband, Mr. Greenspan, came down Ms. Haddad’s driveway together. How was Mr. Greenspan enjoying the day? “On deep background?” he said.
These things used to be fun, said Richard Schiff, who was Toby Ziegler on The West Wing. Back in the Clinton days, he said, D.C. was a riot. The cast would attend the dinner. “It was a bit of an honor, at first, in the Clinton years,” said Mr. Schiff.
“The White House was like a swinging summer screen door to us back then,” he said. “It would swing open anytime we walked by. That was a fun time. They were winding down. They were loose. It was a good time to come to Washington.”
Florida governor and wannabe vice presidential candidate Charlie Crist’s insane tan preceded him through Ms. Haddad’s tent. Vice president? “That’s never going to happen,” said a publicist. “It’s bad for the gays and bad for the G.O.P.”
“I see him all the time in Florida,” said someone.
“Where?” asked another.
“Mmm. With whom?”
“His mother.” Everyone laughed.
Did you get anything good, MSNBC gossip Courtney Hazlett? “No, I’m in D.C.!” she said.
“We don’t know if she’s Miss America or Miss USA, but she married one of our friends,” someone said.
GQ editor Jim Nelson was speaking about approval ratings with Hillary Clinton’s recently semi-dumped adviser, Mark Penn. Mr. Penn’s shirt was soaked in sweat, and was untucked in the back; Mr. Nelson wore a well-fitted blazer and skinny jeans.
Later, Mr. Penn was asked if he received any fashion advice from Mr. Nelson. “Who?” he asked.
THAT NIGHT AT the Hilton Hotel, at the dinner proper, Nancy Gibbs, the back-page essayist for Time, was discussing what an honor it was to be in a place with so many distinguished journalists, especially those who were risking their lives. (That war.) Then her colleague, Karen Tumulty, tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hillary Rosen is going to get a picture of the Jonas Brothers—do you want one for your kids, too?” Ms. Gibbs popped from her seat.
“You know, I’m parachuting down from New York this weekend and in New York there are lots of conversations,” said Time’s Joe Klein. “This is a one-conversation city.”
“Great to see you, Tony!” Mr. Klein said, flinging himself at Tony Snow, former White House spokesman.
There had been a red carpet. Girls screamed. The host of Lifetime’s Daily Workout did push-ups on it. “I’m here for you,” Jason Binn told Salman Rushdie on it. There Martha Stewart posed with Colin Powell. Homeland Security honcho Michael Chertoff ghoulishly crawled by.
Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn was a bit of a star this weekend. He was drinking a glass of rum.
“Tonight is about the happy conclusion of the Bush administration, which has been eclipsed by this catfight in the Democratic Party,” he said. “Tonight is also a chance to be a part of the cream of the crop,” he said. Like who? Actress Morgan Fairchild, who he described as a “foreign-relations expert.”
And yet Karl Rove was right there! He was sitting next to Newsweek editor Jon Meacham. CBS News president Sean McManus worked the room; there were his reporters David Martin, and Steve Kroft, and Bill Plante. But where in the world was Katie Couric? People said Ms. Couric had swept in under the protection o
f mammoth producer Rick Kaplan, tasked with the all-important job of keeping the press away from Ms. Couric.
With that bit of dirty work out of the way, Mr. Kaplan, the current CBS News producer (and the former president of CNN and MSNBC) sidled up to the MSNBC table, one by one squeezing the cable newsmen into his barrel chest. Papa! The big bearlike producer moved on to the CNN table next door. More hugging. He rubbed John King on the head. “I’m proud of you,” said Mr. Kaplan,
Kal Penn, the handsome star of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo, was a guest of Slate editor Jacob Weisberg. Mr. Penn was with a stunning white-bow-tied young person named Jake. Does he ever get tired of Mr. Penn being chased with a camera? “This isn’t even that bad,” he said.
Ed Westwick—Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl—was sitting at a nearly empty table at the farthest end of the room. He was here with his father—a professor of economics at the University of London. Surprise!
“Remember that Swift Boat thing?” said a D.C. columnist, pointing out a man in the crowd. “That was him. Now he works for Romney.” Apparently, there is still both a Huckabee and a Romney campaign; the McCain camp was also well represented.
“This does have an absurdist quality to it,” said Matt Cooper, Washington bureau chief at Portfolio. “Mixing all these celebrities with us,” he said, thinking out loud. “There is some eye-rolling to all of it.”
“This is my 20th year here!” said Bill Schneider, the CNN commentator. “It’s only gotten glitzier.” And after eight years of Bush? “We’re much wearier, and we’re much more skeptical.”
For the first time, The New York Times boycotted the dinner. “This is a moment when people already think the press is too cozy with government,” said Dean Baquet, The New York Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau chief, last year. “And I think these events confirm that.”
“They felt—I just want to make sure I got this right—they felt this event undercut the credibility of the press,” said Craig Ferguson during his comedy presentation at this year’s dinner. “It’s funny. You see, I thought that Jayson Blair and Judy Miller took care of that. … Well, let me try this: Shut the hell up, New York Times, you sanctimonious, whining jerks!”
The crowd cheered for that loud and long.
“Pretty harsh!” said James Bennett, editor of The Atlantic and formerly a Washington reporter for The Times. “I was a little surprised by the applause. Yeah. I actually looked around—it was one of those cases where the journalists, I think, weren’t exactly applauding but the guests were. I think there was some solidarity, but?”
There was some solidarity, but it wasn’t in the room. The New Yorker hasn’t purchased a table in years. And! The Washington Post’s star reporter Dana Milbank had said at Tammy Haddad’s brunch that he’d be delivering a speech on “the sad decline of the smoke-filled room” at a cigar party in Virginia rather than attend the dinner.
“In the final year of a second-term president, there isn’t much buzz,” said Time’s managing editor, Rick Stengel, who did attend. Has it lost its buzz entirely? “A little bit,” he said. “I don’t know—you decide.”
O.K., we will. The Hills stars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt stayed for the whole dinner, and the pimp, Dennis Hof, was right there again. More clients here, he said, than back at Tammy’s. Mr. Hof said he road-tests each member of his staff. So there were connections.
Larry King sneezed, and snot flew. Mr. Corn left in a Mercedes with Ms. Fairchild. When asked about her expertise on the Iraq war, Ms. Fairchild said, “I don’t know if I’m an expert, but I certainly have an interest.” She shut the door to one side of the car; Mr. Corn hopped in the other. “That’s about all you’re ever gonna get from Morgan Fairchild,” said Mr. Corn knowingly.
At least someone was thinking about the war.
“IT’S NOT JUST a swan song for Bush,” said MSNBC’s David Shuster. “Because of the cutbacks and because of all the investment in politics, after the election time, it’s going to be a bad hangover. The media is going to have to take a cold shower. So I think everybody is enjoying the party and enjoying the fact that you have a job now while it lasts. Because starting with the new administration, lord knows what the news business is going to look like.”
Mr. Shuster was standing with his wife, Julianna Goldman, at the Bloomberg LP after-party. In her capacity as a political reporter with Bloomberg News, Ms. Goldman said she had done her part of filling up the acreage of tables at the dinner. Her date for the night had been celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who was crammed into an all-Diesel outfit. (“Salman Rushdie came over to say hi too. WTF????” Perez would later recount on his blog.)
The rain outside was leaking in, inside the mazy, just-constructed hallways of the Bloomberg after-party, at the Costa Rican embassy. Drip! “Right into my tits!” said CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“Good night, Christiane!” said Tammy Haddad.
“I did have a conversation with Pete Wentz from Fallout Boy?” said Glamour editor Cindi Leive, her first year at the dinner, speaking of Ashlee Simpson’s date. “You know when you go to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, you’re thinking Newt Gingrich, Ralph Reed, Pete Wentz from Fallout Boy. But he was really nice,” she said. “He was attracted to my range of vision ’cause he wanted to talk to Padma Lakshmi, because apparently he watches her show and he’s learned a lot about reductions from it.”
“It’s an odd combination of C-Span meets Entertainment Tonight,” said Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.
Around 1 a.m,, Condé Nast group president David Carey and Portfolio’s publisher William Li and writers Dana Thomas and Matt Cooper were out back in the smoking area. “All right, ready to go to the Hitch?” Mr. Cooper asked a liquor lobbyist.
Olivia Wilde, looking much less tan and blond and Californian than in her days playing Alex Kelly on The O.C., stood by the bar, which was manned by about a dozen New York boy models. Salman Rushdie hovered a foot or so away, looking on with lust. Ms. Wilde is the daughter of political journalists Leslie and Andrew Cockburn. She said that back in the day, as a young lass, her parents had dragged her to all the Christopher Hitchens parties and the like. Now, she was returning as a Hollywood starlet, no longer the youngest person in the room.
Mr. Rushdie inched in closer. Who was the most interesting person he had met at the party? “Why, this girl right here,” he said, draping his arm around Ms. Wilde’s waist.
What did Ms. Wilde and Mr. Rushdie think of the current crop of White House correspondents? Did they have a favorite? “No,” said Mr. Rushdie.
“Sad, isn’t it?” said Ms. Wilde. She excused herself to have a word with Kal Penn.
“Candy Crowley,” Mr. Rushdie ventured belatedly. He said he had once been a guest alongside CNN’s Ms. Crowley on Bill Maher’s show. Candy Crowley is
Around 2:30 a.m., Mr. Rushdie and Ms. Wilde were mingling together again, this time in a dark, lavish conservatory deep in the grounds of the Costa Rican embassy. A young lady named Christina pushed herself forward and asked for a picture with Mr. Rushdie; several more followed. Ms. Wilde half-watched the bevy of female interlopers, displeasure creeping across her pretty face.
Ms. Amanpour had already parachuted off to “the Hitch,” the apartment of Christopher Hitchens, just up the street. “Just five minutes, 10 minutes, darling,” she said to her friend, on the way in.
Mr. Hitchens has more than one room devoid of furniture, 28 volumes by Gore Vidal and “the smoothest elevator,” according to B. J. Novak of The Office. Mr. Hitchens has also quit smoking, shaved his beard and begun to remodel his figure.
“Nobody wants to be Jayne Mansfield,” said Roxanne Roberts, Washington Post gossip columnist, on why the women in D.C. do not bare their chests. “The only trouble here tonight will be a spirited conversation about pullout in Iraq,” she said.
There wasn’t any trouble at all.