As the political and entertainment industries gear up for the first full-swing White House Correspondents’ Dinner since the Obama presidency—thanks to Trump’s complete absence of humor and the coronavirus restrictions—pop-culture personalities and politicos are preparing to mingle once more in the nation’s capital.
The weekend consists of a number of satellite events and parties surrounding the main dinner, on Saturday night. While the mission behind the dinner is to “ensure a free press and robust coverage of the presidency,” it’s also a chance for the capital to unpart its hair, and for media companies and lobbying groups to fly in actors, comedians, and musicians to mingle with the so-called power brokers.
The dinner itself is held in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the biggest room in the city with unobstructed views and the ability to feed and water more than 2,500 people. It’s not the most glamorous hotel, but it is one with the closest links to Hollywood: it’s where Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in his insane bid to impress a young Jodie Foster. You can’t get a better mix of politics and showbiz than that. The whole affair is shown on C-Span, which, like Cinderella, turns from its usual grim labor of airing congressional committees and, for one night, transforms into a broadcasting princess.
There’s always star power present. Even last year, when events were somewhat curtailed, the then super-couple of Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian drew the flashbulbs, and when Kim scolded Pete for stepping on the train of her silver dress, nothing short of a nuclear incursion could match the drama.
But there’s also chaos, misunderstandings, and the chance of a P.R. disaster. I remember seeing Casey Affleck’s publicist cramming him with current events seconds before he walked down into the dinner so he could give the illusion of being a man of the world. At least it was more dignified than the time I saw Armie Hammer—in his pre-cancellation days—complaining loudly to his rep that she had “left him hanging” as he was peppered with political questions from the hardball-throwing D.C. media.
Meanwhile, some of the guests are simply unaccustomed to adjusting their behavior to an event that the president of the United States attends. In my capacity as his D.C. chaperone, I had to confiscate a pocketknife from Julian Casablancas, singer of the Strokes, before he entered the official dinner so that the Secret Service didn’t jump him.
The idea of inviting stars from outside the media world can be traced to the Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Kelly and his invitation in 1987 of Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secretary at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal. The glamorous Hall shook up what had been until then an event as fashionable as a Rotary Club dinner, and the attendant journalists acted much as they do now when shown a well-known face—gawking, pushing, and lining up to get an autograph. Hall’s appearance opened the floodgates. The next year saw Ted Danson and Sylvester Stallone attend, and, ever since, everyone from Tom Cruise and Charlize Theron to Serena Williams and Tom Brady have been guests of media organizations desperately trying to one-up each other.
Despite its frivolity, the dinner is not without consequence. When Donald Trump attended in 2011, just as he was championing the “birther” conspiracy theory, the comedian Seth Meyers and President Obama himself roasted him mercilessly. Many trace Trump’s loathing of the mainstream media, and his decision to run for president, to this moment.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the Washington, D.C., press corps is used to chasing after elusive members of Congress, but the interview line leading up to the dinner is always disorganized and often quite brutal. One of my most memorable moments was being pushed by a crowded press line into Nikolaj Coster-Waldau—the Kingslayer from Game of Thrones—who turned to the CNN camera that was filming him and exasperatedly declared, “What is actually going on here?”
It’s clear that for many of the actors, sports stars, and musicians, this is one stop they could do without. I recall watching Sofía Vergara, when ABC brought the cast of Modern Family to town, hide from a crowd of politicos all begging her to take selfies with them. Indeed, Timothy Simons, who starred as the despicable Jonah Ryan on Veep, told me the W.H.C.D. was “the worst event ever.”
I had to confiscate a pocketknife from Julian Casablancas, singer of the Strokes, before he entered the official dinner.
Julia Fox is the odds-on favorite to cause a stir at this year’s event. The actress, podcaster, former dominatrix, and spirit of the age is sure to up the ante with whatever her rendition of black-tie attire turns out to be. But it’s not all about Saturday night.
The main dinner is surrounded by other events, which this year will include Elle magazine’s inaugural Women of Impact event, which First Daughter Ashley Biden will attend as one of the honorees. The Creative Coalition, the funding-for-the-arts advocacy group, will send a delegation, including the actress Rachel Bloom, the Broadway star B. D. Wong, and comedian Billy Eichner, to hobnob for the arts. The Welcome to Washington dinner, hosted by the political analyst Rina Shah, will see fashion model Winnie Harlow and basketball star Kyle Kuzma mix with Gisele Fetterman, wife of Senator John Fetterman. While HQ, by the Burns Brothers, a luxurious, members-only club, will have the official comedian of this year’s W.H.C.D., The Daily Show’s Roy Woods Jr., in attendance.
Even so, these parties are a far cry from the affairs that Vanity Fair and Bloomberg used to host at the French ambassador’s residence (under the auspices of Michael Bloomberg and Graydon Carter, now a Co-Editor of Air Mail) during the Obama years. Here I once sipped champagne with George Clooney and observed Jared Leto wandering the house looking confused—or perhaps just bored. We may never regain the glamour of the W.H.C.D. during “the Obamarama,” but there’s sure to be some glitter, and more than enough gaffes.
The 2023 White House Correspondents’ Dinner takes place on April 29
Jess Hoy is a Washington, D.C.–based publicist and brand-development specialist