Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines: The race has begun for DC media and political types to try to get into the most A-list parties and score face time with the most celebrities, all between now and Sunday afternoon. Then it’s over—“it” being the wackadoodle weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Come Monday, we return to normalcy, and a great sigh of relief will be heard around the Beltway.
You won't see it on the 11 o'clock news, but major-league sucking up is going on behind the scenes as otherwise well-behaved journos and others yelp, "Do you know who I am?" as they literally beg to get on one list or another. Is it unbecoming? Absolutely. Does that abate the frenzy? Not at all. The rumors of favors offered in return for invites make for delicious gossip, but none of it crosses lines that would prompt a Congressional investigation.
The loopiest part of the weekend scenario is that the dinner itself is the least exclusive of the events, and the least glamorous. Most reporters can buy a ticket through the White House Correspondents' Association. They fill the Washington Hilton ballroom to bulging, and then schmooze and yak through the awards portion and other preliminary speeches, wolfing down so-so food, quieting only for the usually well-crafted remarks by the President and then a comedy bit, this year from talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. Last year, if you recall, President Obama put Donald Trump, sitting stone-faced in the audience, in his place and then went home and saw to it that Osama bin Laden got killed.
A tip: The dinner can be watched live on C-Span, making your own sofa the best seat in the house.
As a preamble to the next 72 hours, last night at the Four Seasons Hotel there was an elegant dinner in honor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In terms of protocol and etiquette, Clinton and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund were technically the most powerful people in the room. But who else did many guests want to get close to? That's easy. French ambassador Francois Delattre and his wife, Sophie Delattre, who--at least for this weekend--are one of the most powerful couples in town. The most coveted WHCA-related invitation is to the Vanity Fair after-party held at their Kalorama residence. The party is cohosted by Bloomberg, but it's Vanity Fair who handles the event planning and who principally controls the guest list, a list that is almost as secret as the codes to Fort Knox. The Delattres have a big say, of course, but they gladly leave the policing of the list to Vanity Fair,
What you can be sure of is that, as in years past, the party will be packed with boldface names from New York and Hollywood, plus some imports from France. Over the years the celebs have been as diverse as Jon Hamm, Morgan Freeman, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler, Chace Crawford, Scarlett Johannson, Salmon Rushdie, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Dan Snyder, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who holds the record for most outrageous exit; when he left, he redecorated the ambassador's carpet with his dinner), Eva Longoria, James Franco, just about the entire cast of SNL, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, Tony Romo, and on and on. This year George Clooney is expected at the Vanity Fair soiree, as well as Claire Danes, and possibly even Lindsay Lohan, who reportedly is the dinner guest of Greta van Susteren.
But to get in the door, one has to be invited, and this year to prevent any crashing, all invited guests have had to send in a photo, which will be matched to their face and a barcode at the gate. As for crowd-watching, we hear there are plans to shut down the street to traffic, though the big VIPs--such as members of the Cabinet and administration--will likely be dropped off right up front.
Ambassador and Mrs. Delattre deftly maneuvered among the guests last night at the Four Seasons, neither seeming particularly undone by what's to come. This will be the second year they've hosted the after-party. Last year the ambassador had been in his position for only three weeks, and the two were nearly like deer in headlights, but now they know what to expect and are looking forward to the hoopla. Mrs. Delattre has cut the guest list way back in an effort to keep things elegant and civilized.
We don't know whether Secretary Clinton will attend the WHCA dinner or the Vanity Fair party, but in last night's remarks she acknowledged that the events mark the important anniversary of bin Laden's killing. She recalled the Sunday night in May one year ago when the President gathered his top military and intelligence advisers in the Situation Room to watch the events unfold in Pakistan, where Navy SEALS invaded the terrorist's compound. "It was an incredible moment for me because of the extraordinary personal commitment," she said.
These days what a lot of people look for in a Clinton speech is hints of what she'll do after she leaves the State Department. There were no significant tea leaves to be read last night. Clinton did say, "I love politics," which she called the "lifeblood of our society," but the context was the example America has to set around the world, particularly in emerging nations. She said that "to shore up America's strength, we need more than military prowess." She continued, "I don't believe the rise of nuclear power has to be a threat to American leadership. A strong America is working with new global powers to prevent a global conflict. Only the United States has the resources to do this, but America cannot and should not shoulder every burden ourselves." She commended the American military, too, and mentioned the good relationships she has with the joint chiefs of staff.
The audience, members and supporters of the Woodrow Wilson Institute, were in her thrall, and gave standing ovations at the start and end of her speech. The award she received, for public service, was presented by Christine Lagarde, who said she's always been trying professionally to keep up with Clinton, wherever she goes, whatever she does.
While dinner was served, Clinton sat between her friend, and in many ways her "social" protector, Vernon Jordan, and Senator Susan Collins. One by one people came by to say hello.
Moushira Khattab was one of them. She is a Wilson Center Scholar, an Egyptian, who just arrived in Washington to pursue more study in her field, family and population issues. As a former minister in the Egyptian government she spearheaded the development and inauguration of 1,167 girl-friendly schools that provide quality active learning to thousands of girls in some of Egypt's poorest areas. Clinton had praised her work in the past, and she wanted to say thank you. Khattab got her courage up, walked over to Clinton's table, said hello, and the Secretary of State beamed. When Khattab walked away, she was beaming, too. "She remembered me," she said, as if having just met the most important woman in the world.
A moment like that gives perspective to the weekend of the WHCA Dinner, when a part of the DC population goes overboard in pursuit of gold dust. What amuses me is that the Washington media invite all these movie stars to their annual "prom," but the movie stars don't reciprocate and invite the Washington media to their proms, the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes. It would seem fair is fair, huh? But by Monday no one will care. Back to budgets and campaigns and the struggle for world peace.