“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?”