The do’s and don’ts of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend

The old adage that politics is showbusiness for ugly people rings true here

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Friday 26 April 2024 21:28 BST
Election 2024 Biden
Election 2024 Biden (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It’s that time of year again: White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend. While it may seem that the only thing the Washington press corps likes more than this weekend is trashing it as decadent and self-indulgent, the truth is that we only do it to assuage our own guilt. The idea that we talk about the sanctity of the free press while sipping cocktails and eating half-cooked chicken with the very people with whom we’re supposed to have an adversarial relationship is... uncomfortable for a lot of people.

Nevertheless, after the long hours reporting on everything from Mike Johnson’s Mojo Dojo Casa House of Representatives, the crisis in the Middle East, and the repeat election no one wants to see, the weekend is a chance to enjoy ourselves. It’s also the last gas of fun before many of us hit the campaign trail. After this, it’s all filing copy from the middle of the Arizona desert, the suburbs of Atlanta or the steel mills of Wisconsin, away from our friends and family.

So, we reason, we deserve a little treat.

However, like with any celebration weekend, there are still rules — most of them unspoken. For the unitiated, here is the official Inside Washington list of Do’s and Don’ts to survive what is affectionately known as Nerd Prom.

Do: Dress your best

While television journalists and correspondents know how to clean up for the cameras, let’s face it: us ink-stained wretches who also work in pixels don’t have the best sartorial reputation.

Print and digital reporters are often known for having coffee stains on our shirts, wearing rumpled clothes from long nights covering the most powerful people in the world, or otherwise writing up stories in our pandemic-era “athleisure”. This weekend’s the time to freshen up and look our best — especially if we want a selfie with a B-list celebrity to get a bunch of likes on social media.

In other words: find the bold dress you’ve been eyeing on Rent the Runway and strike your best pose on the red carpet. Make sure you get your tuxedo altered to your specifications and take fashion notes from Joe Biden, Mitt Romney or Raphael Warnock, all well-dressed men (even if we don’t always agree with their policies). If Senator John Fetterman, who famously prefers his Carhartts and hoodies, can afford to wear a suit and tie for the evening, you can too.

Don’t: Try to upstage celebrities

The flipside to dressing well is knowing our limits.

Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala’s old adage that politics is showbusiness for ugly people still tracks. Celebrities are professionals at posing for the red carpet. It’s literally their job. Be bold in your outfit choices but don’t worry if you can’t afford the threads that our esteemed guests can afford. Our business isn’t exactly raking in the dough these days.

Do: Pre-game (and post-game) the actual dinner

Like any great road trip or party, the build-up is usually as fun — if not more fun — than the actual party. Think of it this way: the actual dinner takes place at the Washington Hilton in a cramped conference room, loaded with presidential security and guests who make it nearly impossible to move around. Forget if your friends from other news outlets are far on the other side of the room.

On top of that, the food, while pretty decent, is being cooked for a large amount of people, so it doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being Michelin star. And it’s hard to get a drink topped off, too.

Just like actual prom, the pre-game is the place to loosen up. The pre-parties often have better spreads of food and sometimes, as was the case one year with the baklava at the Qatari embassy’s party, even an open bar.

One of my favorite ever pre-parties was put on during the Obama presidency by The Onion. There, a Joe Biden-themed “badass balls-to-the-wall fiesta” had a string quartet playing ‘70s and ‘80s metal while guests sipped drinks near an ice sculpture shaped like the then-vice president riding a motorcycle.

Don’t: Complain about the food to staff

The conditions of the food aside, it’s important to remember the staff at the Washington Hilton are likely overworked and putting in extra duty. There has long been a class divide between white-collar Washington — the people responsible for gentrifying vast swathes of it — and the largely Black and working-class DC residents, who often work in the service industry catering to that white-collar set.

So regardless of whether you got a white wine instead of a red or your chicken is cold, don’t be a jerk. And at the pre-parties, even if there is an open bar paid for by a billionaire who owns a news outlet, tip the bartenders for extra fare for the metro ride home.

Do: Get to know the people you cover in a different light

Covering the White House or the Capitol makes it easy to only see White House officials, candidates, members of Congress or staff in one dimension. A lot of us come to believe the caricature officials’ opponents create of their enemies — or, just as dangerously, the false persona public officials project of themselves.

But even the most grating political personalities have traits that made people vote for them and reasons for getting involved in public service. Having an off-the-record chat can allow you to build strong source relationships and to add a bit of nuance to your reporting.

Plus, getting to know some of the lesser-known officials can help. They might just be the future of something.

Don’t: Throw yourselves over celebrities

We get it. It’s cool to see John Legend or Kim Kardashian. I’m not beneath a selfie with an actress who was a childhood crush myself.

But remember that these people are here mostly for work purposes or to promote their causes, and already likely get requests for selfies constantly from people on the streets. If you really want to get their attention, ask why they are in Washington; what motivates them about politics. Taking them seriously and not treating them as dilettantes is a far better way to earn their respect.

And above all else? Make sure you have a good time. See you at the buffet.

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