It was Wednesday morning at 9:47 a.m. in the White House Press Briefing Room. The president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, took the podium. Major television networks had interrupted coverage to broadcast the president’s address. “Now, let me just comment, first of all, on the fact that I can’t get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions,” he said. “I was just back there listening to Chuck [Todd, of NBC News]; he was saying, ‘It’s amazing that he’s not going to be talking about national security.’” He pointed into the crowd: “I would not have the networks breaking in if I were talking about that, Chuck, and you know it.” Someone from the press corps shouted: “Wrong channel.” The room laughed, and then quieted to hear the American president talk about the fact that he was born in the United States, and had a birth certificate to prove it.
Journalists from newsrooms, magazine offices and studios across the country digested the information, repackaged it appropriately for their readers and viewers and moved on to the next order of business. For a select few, that meant planning for the weekend’s events, the most high profile of which was the annual White House Correspondents Dinner–a tradition begun in 1920 that brings together the press and the people they purportedly cover for an evening of entertainment, shmoozing and, as the name implies, dinner. It is the nexus of a series of events, mostly cocktail parties and a few selective brunches, that extend throughout the weekend and are hosted by various media organizations and attended by Washington insiders, journalists–and increasingly, California-based attendees with a presumed interest in public policy, like Kim Kardashian and the Jonas Brothers–some of whom are invited as guests to the dinner by media organizations represented there.
At 4:52 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, The Observer emailed The New York Times‘ executive editor, Bill Keller, to ask whether the dinner–an affair wherein journalists who are tasked with covering beltway power spend an evening socializing with it–is at worst, an outright conflict of interest, and at best, well … a bit unseemly. Former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who recently left the paper to become a columnist for New York magazine, had criticized the paper’s attendance at the event and was said to be influential in curtailing its official appearances a few years prior. (Mr. Rich, who was out of the country, did not respond to The Observer‘s requests for comment.) The Observer wondered whether Mr. Rich’s departure changed the paper’s thinking on the issue. “GROAN,” Mr. Keller responded via e-mail. “SUCH a done subject. Why don’t you try Dean Baquet in the Washington Bureau? I’m sure he’d LOVE to answer your questions.”
Seven minutes later, The Observer received an e-mail from Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet. “Here is the deal,” Mr. Banquet wrote. “We are not being holier than thou, or criticizing anyone who chooses to go. But we came to the conclusion that it had evolved into a very odd, celebrity-driven event that made it look like the press and government all shuck their adversarial roles for one night of the year, sing together (literally, by the way) and have a grand old time cracking jokes. It just feels like it sends the wrong signal to our readers and viewers, like we are all in it together and it is all a game. It feels uncomfortable.”
An hour earlier, in the Situation Room of the White House, senior intelligence advisers explained to the president that there was a 60 to 80 percent chance Osama bin Laden had been located in a compound in Pakistan that the C.I.A. had been scouting for months, and the president needed to decide whether he would move ahead with an air strike or a ground strike, or if he would wait to gather further intelligence.
Around 7 p.m. that evening, Mr. Baquet followed up: “I don’t want to trash the small and medium size papers that really care about this. It’s just the way we feel.” (For the record, The Observer is a small-size paper, and does not officially attend the dinner.)
It was Friday morning at 8:28 a.m. in New York and The Observer scanned news of the Royal Wedding in London, which attracted approximately 22 million viewers in the U.S. As we prepared to head to D.C. to further inspect the Correspondents Dinner attendees up close, a meeting was taking place in the White House Diplomatic Room. Before boarding a helicopter to Alabama to survey flood damage, the president called his senior aides in and told them: it would be a helicopter strike. Security Adviser Tom Donilon; his deputy, Denis McDonough; and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan decided to move forward with Operation Geronimo, scheduled to take place on Saturday.
That evening in the W Hotel lobby, one of the first of the weekend’s various parties had begun. Around 8:30 p.m. Hilda Solis, dressed in fuchsia, was ushered past New Yorker party security. “Secretary of Labor,” her handler said to a young man with earpiece and iPad. Secretary Solis bounced in place to the elevator music. Forty-five minutes later editor David Remnick rested a plate of sushi on a table and debriefed The Observer. “Do you know about Mike Kelly?” In 1987, Kelly, then a reporter, set the precedent for outrageous escorts by bringing Fawn Hall, Iran-Contra femme fatale. Kelly was killed reporting in Iraq in 2003. Asked about the decision by his former employer, The Washington Post, to bring Donald Trump as its guest of honor, Mr. Remnick replied, “Well, that should be interesting because I just ripped his ass. I’ll have to stop by and say, ‘Hi’.”
About an hour later, The Observer intercepted the dinner’s emcee, Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers, who provided intelligence on the impending roast of the president, a tradition of the annual dinner. Mr. Meyers was not nervous, “healthy butterflies,” he said. “It’s easier to make fun of a politician you do like,” he said. “It comes off as less angry.”
Saturday morning. Operation Geronimo had been rescheduled due to weather.
The weather was just fine at Tammy Haddad’s annual Garden Brunch–held at the former home of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, which is now owned by venture capitalist Mark Ein–the weekend’s festivities now in full swing. The Observer spotted New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, who is reportedly working on a book about the incestuousness of beltway culture. Also in attendance were Olympic snowboarder Shaun “The Flying Tomato” White, Morgan Fairchild and Chace Crawford. Rupert Murdoch was ushered from the living room to the patio after being approached by reporter Gabriel Sherman, known to be working on a book about Fox News. Actor Tim Daly, in beard, shades and a threadbare velvet blazer, went largely unrecognized and explained to another guest that he wanted to meet Buzz Aldrin, who was being wheeled around the patio. He played [astronaut] Jim Lovell in the HBO series, he explained. Rosario Dawson, a guest of CNN, made sure to note that she was invited because of her advocacy work and not her celebrity status.
Mid-afternoon, REM bassist Mike Mills convinced an unidentified suit to submit to the powers of magician Gerard Senehi. “Mentalist,” Mr. Senehi corrected. “If you call me a magician again, I’ll kill you.” Mr. Senehi correctly guessed the foreign word the suit has written on the back of his MSNBC business card. It was already written on Mr. Senehi’s own business card, which he extracted from his wallet, to Mr. Mills’ delight.
The Palin family arrived surrounded by photographers and clamoring fans and a TV producer was seen bragging about having given Sarah Palin his card.
Later that evening in the reception room of the Washington Hilton, a throng of people, including Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Piven, began moving toward the main hall of the hotel for the White House Correspondents Dinner. Greta Van Susteren engaged Donald Trump as a crowd looked on. The Observer asked Mr. Trump who he was excited to meet at the dinner. “Everyone. Everyone,” he said. A Washington Times reporter thrust her comically oversize microphone at him: “Mr. Trump, what do you have to say about the rumor that Kim Kardashian will be your running mate?” He answered without looking at her: “That’s, uh, I can’t, that’s not true.” She persisted: “What about Khloe?” Trump and the throng trudged forward: “No, no.” The reporter grinned as she turned away, pleased with her line of questioning.
At approximately 8:30 p.m., the president arrived at the dinner. Shortly thereafter, he left the dais, following Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ lead. As revelers continued to sip their Champagne, the president was informed the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s son had been killed by a NATO airstrike.
An hour later, the New York Times reporter Peter Baker won the Aldo Beckman Award for his “deep insight about how Obama operates, from his response to the terrorist threat to his struggles to contend with what the president himself called our ‘big, messy democracy.’”
At 10:22 p.m. Seth Myers was well into his routine for the evening. “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush,” said Myers, “but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?” The president laughed heartily. Myers later noted: “I am, of course, contractually obligated to attend the MSNBC party. Everyone knows how the MSNBC party works: President Obama mixes the Kool-Aid, and everyone drinks it.”
An hour later, The Observer was at the Italian embassy for the MSNBC party, where Rachel Maddow mixed drinks and tended bar below a sign that glows in cursive, pink-neon lettering: RACHEL’S BAR.” The Observer asked her if she thought the dinner was a little too cozy. “I don’t go to the dinner, I just go to this,” she said. “What are you asking me is too cozy? That thing that I didn’t go to that I don’t know anything about? You should ask me about something else. I didn’t go!”
The Observer asked MSNBC president Phil Griffin how the evening was going for him: “It gets better because, you know, we’re making a statement,” he said. “An event like this, we’re letting everybody know, we’re here. We’re in Washington, a place for politics, we should be celebrated on a night like tonight. It’s a night to let all the issues be put aside for one moment to step aside and enjoy yourself. O.K.?”
Eliot Spitzer entered the party. “I thought journalists weren’t working tonight,” he told The Observer.
At 1 a.m., Cee-Lo took the stage. The Observer squeezed its way over to Sarah Palin, holding court with the largest crowd at the party. Sean Penn was sitting across the room at a table with four other people, including REM’s Michael Stipe. Ms. Palin, for her part, was vocal about the role of the press in such proximity to the president. “Well, I still would like the White House Press Corps to ask our president a bit tougher questions about where he really wants to go with this economy and does he understand and believe in free markets or does he really believe in government’s ability to plan our economy for us? So I want the press corps to ask those questions!”
The next morning, the weather was nice in Pakistan–nice enough that Operation Geronimo received another green light. In Washington, it rained, but President Obama was reported to have played nine holes of golf.
Just after mid-day in the Hay-Adams Hotel Penthouse , the Reuters-McLaughlin Group Brunch was filling up; on the terrace, attendees noted a spectacular view of the White House. Inside, a caterer spilled an entire dish of butter onto The McLaughlin Group‘s Eleanor Clift.
Around 2 p.m., the president met with the core Operation Geronimo team before the final “go” order was given.
A few minutes before at the brunch, the Financial Times New York editor Gillian Tett was cornered by anti-tax lobbyist Mark A. Bloomfield, the president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation. Post-business-card exchange with Mr. Bloomfield, she talked to The Observer about her table’s guests: “We had both the chairman of the S.E.C. and the chairman of the F.D.I.C. We weren’t expecting to get both and they both said yes immediately. You know what’s brilliant about the whole evening? Most of the time all these people would be at loggerheads, and at this, they’re all relaxed.”
“When you put them all in a room together and it’s 3,000 people and it’s all the show-business stuff, it looks kind of icky,” said FT columnist John Gapper. “But actually, the reality is: How am I not supposed to not ever have lunch or talk with these people? You get a story out of it.”
But the story was happening elsewhere. At 3:45 p.m. EST/12:45 a.m. PKT, explosions were heard by locals in Bilal Town, a suburb of Abbotabad.
An IT guy Abbotabad noted over Twitter: “A huge window shaking band here in Abbotabad Cantt. I hope it’s not the start of something nasty :-S”
At 3:50 p.m.: Osama Bin Laden was “tentatively identified as dead.”
At 7:01 p.m.: Osama Bin Laden was positively identified.
At 8:30 p.m.: President Barack Obama was given a final briefing on the operation.
And at 9:45 p.m., every major television network interrupted its broadcast with an update that the president would be briefing the nation. The Apprentice was cut short before America could find out who had been fired.
11:35 p.m.: News of the operation had already leaked out through unofficial outlets on Twitter feeds, some of which had been formerly sprinkled with the Correspondents Dinner’s preferred cutesy moniker for itself: “#nerdprom.” At 10:24 p.m., Donald Rumsfeld’s Chief of Staff and Navy Reserve intel officer Keith Urbahn tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.”
Then the president addressed the nation. Nearly ten years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was dead.
The biggest story of 2011–the behind-the-scenes workings of which had happened within single-digit miles of the elite of the nation’s press corps, in closer mass proximity to the president than they are at nearly any other time of the year–had broken.
And it had not leaked. Except perhaps at 10:24 to Urbahn, and via Dwayne Johnson, better known as The Rock. “Just got word that will shock the world – Land of the free… home of the brave DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!”
Mr. Johnson did not attend the dinner.