They say politics is show-business for ugly people, but for one night every year the ugly people get to mingle with the beautiful ones, at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Yet on Saturday evening, just as the glitzy event was being broadcast live on CNN for the first time, the great and good of Washington DC were reportedly dismayed by the relative lack of entertainment industry celebrities on the guest list.
This highlight of the media and political social calendar began life as a mere evening meal, organised by the US capital’s press corps, to celebrate the work of journalists over the preceding 12 months. But it has ballooned into a long weekend of schmoozing, with nine pre-Dinner parties taking place in Washington on Friday evening alone, including one thrown by Google and Netflix, attended by several actors from the hit political drama series House of Cards.
To the disappointment of locals, however, this year’s Dinner itself featured only a smattering of stardust among the more workaday notables of politics and news. The Hollywood stars invited to the event included Robert De Niro, Lupita Nyong’o, Anna Kendrick and Sofia Vergara.
Organisers told The Washington Post that they had deliberately attempted to re-orient the evening away from celebrity glamour and back towards honouring journalists. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, the reduced star-wattage might also have something to do with the groupie-like behaviour of past guests. One year, a drunken attendee allegedly bared her breasts to actor-director Ben Affleck, who has not turned up to the Dinner since.
One anonymous entertainment industry source told the magazine, “There are way too many A-listers who have had pretty weird experiences at the dinner. A lot of the people who have gone say they’ll never do it again. The room is so crowded. It’s uncontrolled. There’s no limit to the number of people trying to get photos and autographs – and there’s no way to hide from it. It’s like the stars are animals in a cage. People go crazy when they see them.”
This year, instead of Hollywood stars, the Dinner drew many big names from Silicon Valley. One of the most prominent parties of the weekend was thrown by Buzzfeed and Facebook at a bar close to the Washington Hilton, where the Dinner itself took place. Yahoo! took up six tables at yesterday night’s event, with the web firm’s CEO Marissa Mayer among the guests.
The first White House Correspondents Association Dinner was held in 1920, and the event has always featured after-dinner entertainment. The current format, whereby a guest comedian is invited to mock his or her fellow attendees – the President included – has been in place since 1983. In recent years, though, the bash has been criticised for fostering overly cosy relations between journalists and the politicians they’re expected to cover. For that reason, the New York Times no longer sends any of its staff to attend the Dinner.
This year’s comic turn came from Joel McHale, star of the sitcom Community. But perhaps the most celebrated Correspondent’s Dinner toast was delivered in 2006, when Stephen Colbert, performing as his bloviating, faux-conservative alter ego, boldly and deftly skewered President George W Bush and his administration. The response in the room was said to be frosty, but the video became an instant and enduring YouTube hit.
The evening also includes a toast from the President himself, which has allowed successive commanders-in-chief to demonstrate their comic prowess, or lack thereof. President Barack Obama is known for his skilful comic timing, and in 2011 used the platform to roast then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. It is thought that many stars were less eager to attend the event this year than last, because Mr Obama’s own star has faded since his re-election victory in 2012, for which many Hollywood figures campaigned and raised funds.