The Degraded Correspondents' Dinner

April 30, 2013 Topic: MediaSociety Region: United States

The Degraded Correspondents' Dinner

It wasn't always about Hollywood celebrities and swag bags.

On the list of the many factors contributing to official Washington’s dysfunction these days, no one would put the degradation of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner near the top. But, as a reflection of what’s wrong with Washington, it deserves serious attention. I speak as a journalist who attended his first White House Correspondents' Dinner in 1975. That’s thirty-eight years ago, but who’s counting? Neither am I counting how many I’ve attended, but I think it’s probably thirty-four.

It was exciting back in 1975, at least for me, though there was only one Hollywood type in attendance. That was Danny Thomas, the actor and television personality, who provided the talent for the evening. He bombed. But it wasn’t important because the dinner had nothing to do with Hollywood. The next year Chevy Chase did the honors. He climbed atop a ladder and promptly fell off, landing on the floor in a heap. This was supposed to be a kind of impersonation of President Gerald Ford, who was thought to have a tendency toward clumsiness, though he had probably the most impressive athletic background of any president in decades. Ford got the last laugh. "Mr. Chase," he said, "you are a very funny suburb."

Such musings are prompted by the media coverage of Saturday’s edition of the annual dinner, held as always in the Washington Hilton ballroom. And it’s clear that there has been no letup in the growing celebrity titillation and lessening attention to the ways of Washington that now characterize these annual spring spectacles.

Indeed, as the Washington Post’s Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger point out, the dinner itself is almost an afterthought during a four-day weekend social spree that has become "a binge of Hollywood celebrity stalking, high-end gate crashing, late-night cocktail schmoozing, shoulder-straining swag hauls"—all clustered around a dinner that has become a televised faux pageant of hype and pomposity.

Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchor and one of the leading journalistic lights of his generation, had enough of all this a year ago when he saw denizens of official Washington ardently clustering around Lindsay Lohan, the Hollywood actress whose difficulties with alcohol and the law have been widely reported. Brokaw suggested on NBC’s Meet the Press that the annual dinner spectacle "separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically." He elaborated: "What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country? Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?" He said it looked more like the latter than the former.

Brokaw has a point, but to understand the true nature of this transformation it’s necessary to remember what these dinners were like in the old days. They were family affairs in which the media and their sources came together for a rare kind of collective socializing in as private a setting as would be possible with some two thousand celebrants. You didn’t come to see celebrities from that Los Angeles enclave noted for preening and self-absorption. You came to get to know your sources a little better and perhaps enhance your ability to work them later for information—information you adjudged important to your readers or viewers. It was all about the Washington experience.

As a journalist, your social aim was to snag a guest who outshone, in prominence and stature, the guests of your colleagues in the highly competitive guest sweepstakes. Everyone was looking to see how you did. Once, during my days as a Wall Street Journal reporter in the early 1980s, a colleague on the paper chided me for inviting Delaware Senator Joe Biden, whom my colleague considered less than a stellar catch. Later, after Biden gained stature as a Senate committee chairman, my colleague allowed as how he had misjudged the man in his younger days. I haven’t asked him what he thinks of the man now that he is vice president.

This anecdote illustrates the extent to which the dinners of old were socially competitive and reflective of a kind of political and journalistic pecking order. As a journalist, you knew where you stood based on the significance of your guest—for example, a nationally known committee chairman or a freshman House member from Iowa? As a politician, your stature was reflected in your host—for example, Time magazine (when Time was among the journalistic aristocrats, not like today) or the Columbus Dispatch?

But nobody gave a thought to what kind of statement this could make to the country at large. These were strictly internal-Washington events designed to foster good relations between government officials and the journalists who covered them. It was inconceivable that anyone would transgress the general culture of the dinners as a way of cadging attention.

Then in 1987 a young reporter for the Baltimore Sun hit upon the idea of inviting an attractive, young White House secretary who had been getting attention as a central figure in the gathering Iran-Contra scandal. The reporter was Michael Kelly, who went on to an illustrious career as writer and editor for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, National Journal and The Atlantic. (He died covering the Iraq War in 2003.) The secretary was Fawn Hall, assistant to White House aide Oliver North and noteworthy for her ability to shred official documents with impressive dispatch.

On the Friday before the 1987 White House Correspondents' Dinner, Michael Kelly was a journalistic nobody in Washington; the Monday after, he was known to all as the clever young man with the wit to leverage the White House Correspondents' Dinner to get his name around. And it so happened that around that same time C-SPAN decided to begin covering the dinner speeches on national television.

The two things together set into motion a process that continues to our day of turning an internal, official family event into a nationally televised celeb binge replete with Hollywood actors ogling prominent politicians and the politicians lowering themselves to do likewise to Hollywood actors. A red carpet is thrown down at the limousine entrance of the Hilton, and a rope line is set up. Citizens crowd in to cheer and swoon and snap photos.

Brokaw is right to wonder what this says to the American people, not only about the media people who allow themselves to get pulled into this maelstrom of public preening but also the politicians who, as custodians of the American government, might want to elevate themselves at least above the image of Hollywood luminaries and their famous brand of narcissism. But it’s also worth pondering what has been lost as these events, with all their appearance of bacchanalian zeal, have gone video and viral, pushing into oblivion the original purpose and ethos of those staid, authentic White House Correspondents' Dinners of old.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.