Nothing in that sub-headline is technically true. The American Spectator wasn’t invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year. However, my cousin from Chevy Chase, Md., Atticus Weathersfielder, was able to secure an invitation through his family’s membership in the National Association of Washington Insiders. He filed the following report.
The revolving door was also a portal. On one side was the prosaic cityscape of Northwest D.C.; on the other, the lobby of the Washington Hilton spilled open, with its red carpets and gold paneling. The White House Correspondents Dinner. Nerd Prom! And just as dozens of the journalists in attendance had gone through the revolving door between the press and government, I had entered a new world, one that was fresh and exciting, but still on back-slapping terms with the old.
The lobby was alive with energy, the sort released when glitzy Hollywood celebrities collide with Washingtonians who think they’re celebrities. Men milled about in identical tuxedoes, chatting with women in black and red dresses that achieved various levels of shoulder coverage. One man, glaring at his phone, was tweeting so ferociously as to cause an explosive malfunction at a Verizon station several minutes later.
I sidled up to my date Melanie, who looked ravishing in a black gown that I’d had shipped down from the family seamstress in Bethesda for the occasion. Unlike me, she was a journalist: the city council correspondent at the Fredericksburg Courant-Courier, the seventh-most-read newspaper in the Fredericksburg area, known primarily for scaring the dickens out of other journalists when they called and abbreviated the paper name to FCC. These were her people, and yet she seemed unsettled. I, on the other hand moved with all the stature of the lead social media expert for the House Transportation Subcommittee on Watercraft, Unicycles, and Zip Lines, a position secured for me when I was in high school through a little Weathersfielder family grease.
Melanie and I made our way into the ballroom. Everyone knew we made our way into the ballroom because I tweeted it, followed by the ubiquitous hash tag “#NerdProm.” The White House correspondents were starting to take their seats. These were the brightest stars in the journalistic firmament; the lushest islands in the reportorial archipelago: Geraldo Rivera, Chris Matthews, even the authoritative Al Sharpton was on hand.
Seeing Sharpton reminded me to locate the Fox News and MSNBC tables. The air was thick with gossip that attendees from both networks were made to sign an armistice that forbade them from committing a wide range of offenses against each other during the dinner: mocking tweets, verbal insults, theft of wine glasses, murder. Five minutes after we walked in, a producer from MSNBC would break the agreement by insulting someone at the Fox table. Twenty minutes after that, a booker from Fox would retaliate by murdering someone at the MSNBC table. But for now, spirits were high.
Melanie and I located our table, which was populated with a miscellany of Washington folk: a former deputy assistant secretary of transportation, a budget cruncher at a local think tank, a freelance reporter for the Washington Post who had just returned from Lesotho, a fetching cover model for CBO Life magazine. We all introduced ourselves and engaged in typically edgy Washington conversation: the transportation guy talked to his date about his job, the think tank guy talked to his date about her job, and the cover model talked to her date about the transportation guy’s job. The guy who’d just returned from Lesotho was taking large gulps of wine.
I was preoccupied searching the ballroom for the C-Span camera, which I eventually located. I followed the trajectory of its lens to a group of people I recognized as the cast of the Washington television drama House of Cards. A mental note was scribbled to keep my eye on that camera. I wanted everyone watching at home to see me sparkling with the powerful.
I turned back to Melanie, who was alternating between nods at the budget cruncher and lugubrious gazes at her Chardonnay.
“Are you having a good time?” I asked her, making sure to smile. The C-Span camera could be warming my face at that very moment.
She gave me a look usually reserved for hastily planned funerals.
“I think we should have gone to the BuzzFeed party instead,” she said.
“Will you lower your voice?” I said through clenched teeth. “We are not going to the BuzzFeed party. I spend enough time hanging out with those people.”
She shrugged. “The conversation’s probably more interesting there.”
“Yes, I’m sure everyone’s having a great time talking about the top 14 Legends of the Hidden Temple nip slips from 1994,” I snarked. “Besides, look around! We’re in the very breadbasket of civilization!”
I made a sweeping motion with my arm. There was Newt Gingrich laughing with Piers Morgan! There was Al Franken, former satirist of the rich and powerful, mugging with the rich and powerful! There was Chris Dodd chatting with a waitress – that always ends well! There was Chris Christie shouting at the woman sitting next to him! And of course, there was the dais, the stage, its chairs warmed to the point of ignition by the likes of General Ray Odierno, Jay Carney, Conan O’Brien, and the president of the United States himself!
She yawned. “If you say so.”
I sipped my wine and chanced another look at the C-Span camera, which was still focused on the House of Cards cast. What sort of tawdry Hollywood voyeur was manning that thing anyway? I consoled myself by noting that TV viewers would only tolerate looking at beautiful celebrities for so long.
Ed Henry, the Fox News reporter and president of the White House Correspondents Association, briefly stepped up to the podium and exhorted us several dozen times to enjoy our dinner. The salad was brought out, a diverse mix of vegetation topped with crab meat imported from the Great Barrier Reef. This was followed by the entrée, expensive steak marinated in juices from other expensive steaks. We ate delicately so as to maintain a baseline of Beltway conversation. The transportation guy was now talking to his date about his wife’s job.
Craning my neck, I noticed that the woman in whose direction Chris Christie had been shouting had left. He was now shouting at her empty chair, which seemed unreceptive to the substance of his arguments.
Shortly thereafter, Henry returned to the podium to begin the evening’s festivities. He made a few remarks, then introduced fellow newsman Bret Baier to present awards to reporters who have done particularly outstanding jobs covering the White House. The president shook hands with each of the reporters, in the hopes of putting an end to all that.
Henry then introduced another speaker whose name I missed, but who appeared to be a senior member of the White House Correspondents Association. Her hair was dangling in loose curls and her neckline plunged vertiginously. She was at least 93 years old.
“I can’t tell you,” she said with regality, “what a pleasure it is to be here with the most important group of people ever assembled in the history of the world.”
The audience applauded and gave sagacious nods of assent. This began an annual Nerd Prom ritual, in which everyone produced their iPhones in unison and tweeted something congratulatory about the person sitting to their right. In my case, that meant Melanie, whose sour mood was starting to rankle me. I made sure my tweet praised her dress, which, after all, was a product of the finest Weathersfielder thread spinning.
The NPR woman’s speech was followed by a comical video featuring Kevin Spacey from House of Cards attempting to browbeat several real-life politicians and journalists over the phone. This elicited a long round of applause from the Washingtonians. Yes, look at us showing approval! We can make fun of ourselves! I refrained from the plaudits, having grown annoyed with this pack of DVD-mail-service thespians, in whose direction the C-Span camera was still pointed. Was there no love for someone like me, who actually worked on Capitol Hill? True, I’d never asphyxiated anyone in a parking garage. But I’d done some stuff.
I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and quickly took it out, hopeful that someone watching C-Span had noticed the back of my head and texted me. Instead there was an Associated Press news alert: something about high unemployment and the national debt. Peeved, I stashed my phone and picked at my Lord Baltimore cake with my 600-carat sterling silver fork. Taking a stand worthy of King Leonidas, I refused to tweet anything.
My frustrations were doused a few minutes later when the president of the United States was introduced to a rousing combo of “Hail to the Chief” and some rap number. The president! My interest was piqued, and even Melanie sat forward and smiled.
Unlike my cousin Matt, who hails from the brambles of upstate Connecticut and associates with those uncouth Tea Partiers, I was raised a proper Washington-area centrist and carry with me all of its hallmarks: respect for natural and unnatural aristocracies, suspicion of all deeply held political principles, support for CAFÉ standards with wide exemptions for Mercedes-Benz, pro-choice advocacy in the case of Southeast D.C., and, of course, a certain deference to Barack Obama. I listened attentively to his routine and, along with the rest of the assembled, was pulled into a collective rapture by the humorous zap of his one-liners.
“I’ve got 99 problems and Jay-Z’s one!”
Ha ha ha! We know who that is!
“Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?!”
Ha ha ha! I, too, have had drinks with Mitch McConnell!
“I remember when BuzzFeed was something I did in college around 2 am!”
Ha ha ha! This line was considered a great victory by the audience, since it finally yielded laughter from the dour-faced Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut. At an adjacent table, a man with hipster glasses mirthfully tumbled from his chair and was promptly removed from the ballroom by several security guards, followed closely by a baseball bat-wielding Rahm Emanuel. Nearby, pop star Katy Perry was desperately searching for a new publicist.
The president ended with a somber tribute to Boston, then ceded the podium to the keynote comedian for the evening, Conan O’Brien. This bobbly-headed Irishman was unquestionably funnier than Obama, but his audience was muted, still in a daze. A funny president! What a wonderful thing to have! Tweets were Tweeted, Faces were Booked, and Interests were Pinned. Looking around, I saw several White House reporters still wiping tears from their eyes – a stark improvement on our resident scribbler from Lesotho, who looked drunk and baleful.
After Conan’s routine, we all filed out in an orderly mob. I became trapped in a knot of people behind the MSNBC primetime lineup, minus Al Sharpton who had stepped out early to start a riot. Melanie’s mood had improved considerably after 13 glasses of Chardonnay and she was now inquiring in hushed tones about various departing attendees. I took a last, forlorn look at the C-Span camera, which was swiveling in an attempt to follow an exiting Kevin Spacey.
It was then that I spied Steven Spielberg, standing in the crowd only a few feet away. I turned to Melanie.
“We should go introduce ourselves,” I said.
“Absolutely!” she gushed. Then she hiccupped.
We squeezed our way through the departing politicos, nearly bulldozing a man who, in retrospect, I’m fairly certain was a high-ranking Syrian bureaucrat wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Court of Justice.
“Steven,” I said, reaching him at last. I shook his hand and introduced Melanie and myself.
He smiled wanly. After a glance over his shoulder, he turned back and said, “So, how, um, how was your week then?”
“It was great,” I told him. “The finance L.A. for our ranking member was able to secure a deal from approps that the latest budget CR would contain funding for the DoD’s P-170 assault kayak. I tweeted about it and, after receiving a substantial volume of retweets, even started a hash tag that…” Spielberg then walked back into the ballroom, before I could take an Instagram photo.
Oh well. At least we could all take pictures at the after parties. Then we could upload those not just to Facebook but, come to think of it, Google Plus as well.