The beginning of the White House Correspondents Association dinner was your basic Washington dinner party. You know the type: some 2,600 guests in black tie inside a secure perimeter with an Armed Forces Color Guard, the President’s Own Marine Band, and POTUS, VPOTUS, and FLOTUS seated at the head table.
The Voice of God announced Vice President Cheney and Mrs. Cheney, the head of the White House Correspondents Association Ron “Hutch” Hutcheson, and then with a flourish from the band, the President of the United States and Mrs. Bush as the familiar chords of “Hail of the Chief” echoed through the hall.
Soon an army of servers invaded the already crowded ballrooom. This part, to us, is always the most impressive part of these large dinners: All 2,600 meals are served in about 15 minutes. (It’s even more impressive if you don’t start thinking about how early they must have begun plating the food in order to serve so many meals simultaneously. You just know that someone’s beef had been sitting on the plate there since 2 p.m.)
More on the dinner excess after the jump.
After snacking on rolls and breads, diners began with two crab hush puppies and a Virginia orchard salad (mixed greens, red and green apples, cheddar cheese, honey roasted pecans and chopped egg topped with an apple cider vinaigrette); then it was on to the entrée: a sliced tenderloin of beef paired with a citrus glazed sea bass, asparagus and baby carrots, and sweet potato dauphinoise (the best part of the meal as far as we were concerned).
Dessert, oddly enough, was the same as it was on the Radio-TV Correspondents Association dinner: Warm chocolate truffle cake and vanilla ice cream.
Within moments of the first food arriving, what semblance of order had greeted the color guard broke down. Hutch’s opening remarks and the introduction of the head table were drowned out by the chattering crowd, which only increased in volume as the preparty cocktails were supplemented by liberal amounts of tableside vino. The wine of the evening was Copperidge Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon–beyond the four bottles at each table, guests could order additional bottles at $30 a pop. We ordered more almost immediately to ensure that it showed up before the end of the meal.
Through the dinner, roving bands of (let’s be honest here) mostly younger girls circled the ballroom looking for some of the more famous guests–in particular ABC’s two NFL stars: McNabb and Tom Brady. If only they’d bothered to look at the 64-page guide listing seating assignments that was waiting for each diner at his or her seat, they would have seen that “Brady, Tom, Foxboro, MA” was seated at table 16 while “Gere, Richard, New York, NY” was at table 118.
New Washington “It” Boy Jason Binn, a guest of CNN, ranged widely through the meal, greeting guests and pressing the flesh as if he was a presidential candidate at a Des Moines chicken supper.
As had been noted before the event, few A-list stars came this year. Of the few currently-employed-on-a-television-show stars, Lost’s Evangeline Lilly, Grey’s Anatomy hunk Isaiah Washington, oddly sans any Housewives, plumber and Teri Hatcher crush James “Mike Delfino” Denton (actually a guest not of ABC but of Bloomberg) mixed with diners.
Nearby West Wing star Richard “Toby Ziegler” Schiff (who wore tennis shoes with his tux after mistakenly packing two left dress shoes) gamely signed programs while our tablemate Jon “Duckie” Cryer posed for photographs from adoring fans. Actor Ron Silver has pretty much blown his D.C. fame quotient by showing up to every recent major political social event, including the Radio-TV dinner earlier in April, and so his appearance made few ripples.
Our vote for tackiest guest, though, went to People Magazine, who at table 49 had Elizabeth Smart and her father. What? Scott Peterson wasn’t available? People’s probably already extended an invitation to next year’s dinner to the runaway bride.
As the meal wound down, “Hutch” started the speaking program, making some remarks and thanking people involved with the dinner, as part of which he thanked his bosses at Knight-Ridder. Someone near Table 33 yelled a little-too-loudly “Suck up!” and the rear of the room burst into laughter.
Perhaps it was that the glasses weren’t crystal or perhaps it was all the booze, but the repeated clinking of glasses and shushing failed to silence the room through the presentation of reporting awards, scholarships, and the passing of the gavel to Mark Smith of AP Radio. As our tablemate Jon Fine writes in Ad Age, “The dinner is only a sideshow.” Then he corrected himself: “Actually, the whole night is a sideshow.”
Finally a prolonged and insistent round of glass clinking silenced D.C.’s chattering class to the point where parts of the program began to be aubible. Hutch recapped the year in the WHCA (remember: they’re the organization that sponsors the dinner), including the campaign charter plane, which traveled 77,000 miles and broke down only once, and the amicus curiae briefs siding with Matt and Judy.
Laura Bush’s surprise appearance in place of the President set many a reporters’ mind calculating the effects of her appearance on the President’s favorability rating, while her material rode the off-color line to the point where one wag noted that her jokes wouldn’t even clear the spam filters of most of the news organizations present.
Except for a riff on how the first black pope would lead to the popemobile being featured on MTV’s Pimp My Ride, Cedric the Entertainer–the only nonwhite face on the dais–barely did. While he might have seemed funnier had he followed the President, Laura Bush, the obvious highlight of the evening, was a tough act to follow.
At one point in Cedric’s routine a guest near us scoffed, “A Bush ‘town hall’ meeting on social security is more exciting than this” (air quotes authentic).
After multiple times thanking the audience, Cedric departed, Hutch adjourned the dinner, and the rush to the Bloomberg after-party was on.
Next year, we might just do what Atlantic Media Publisher David G. Bradley did: Go to the pre-parties, then skip the dinner, and go to a movie. But then again the booze isn’t free at the movies. Hmm. Decisions, decisions.