The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this weekend has become an annual kind of prom for reporters, politicos and Washington insiders, who get to mingle with big names, starting with the president and first lady, and a lot of glitzy Hollywood stars.
“It was the Hollywood-D.C.-N.Y. axis coming together one time a year,” said media consultant Tammy Haddad, a former network television producer who hosts an annual – and exclusive – celebrity brunch the same weekend.
This year’s dinner on Saturday, the 99th, may be a little more subdued, coming less than two weeks after the terrorist bombings in Boston. There will still be mingling at dozens of media cocktail parties, stargazing and jokes from this year’s comic, Conan O’Brien, but the tone, party watchers say, will be different.
“An incident like this always has an impact,” said Ed Henry, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. “We go into this dinner with a heavy heart, not just for Boston, but for Texas.”
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On April 15, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260. Two days later, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing 14 people and injuring more than 160.
Both events continue to haunt the national mood. O’Brien, a popular late-night talk show host who’s a Massachusetts native – and the dinner’s headliner – is expected to talk about the bombings.
“There’s no doubt it’s on his mind,” said Henry, White House correspondent for Fox News. “He’ll undoubtedly want to make some special mention about his hometown.”
O’Brien wasn’t available for interviews, according to a publicist.
Tragedy has previously cast a pall over a dinner that generally is a lighthearted affair full of good-natured bipartisan barbs. In 2007, the dinner was about a week after the Virginia Tech shootings, and then-President George W. Bush told the audience that he’d planned to poke fun at himself but in light of the event “decided not to be funny.”
Four years earlier he’d been equally restrained because of the deaths in Iraq of journalists Michael Kelly, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and David Bloom of NBC News a few weeks earlier.
The sold-out event will still be the talk of the town – or at least its media and political circles – even if it’s a little more subdued.
“I certainly think that there will be a notation of it, but the show will go on,” said Roxanne Roberts, a Washington Post columnist who co-writes the newspaper’s gossip column, The Reliable Source, and who’s covered the dinner since 1990.
There are 2,700 ticket-holders who’ll jam the Washington Hilton, many hoping for a glimpse of the stars on the red carpet or in the ballroom. Hollywood will be well represented this year: Barbra Streisand, Nicole Kidman, Bradley Cooper, producer Harvey Weinstein, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg, among others, are expected to attend.
Sports celebrities also have been invited, including Kevin Ware, the injured member of University of Louisville basketball team, which won the NCAA Final Four championship; former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III; and Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas.
“There’s a kind of cachet for people in L.A. to mingle with politicians and world leaders,” said Ted Johnson, senior editor of Variety, the news outlet that covers Hollywood. Johnson intends to write about the dinner.
News organizations purchase tables, and over the past two decades they’ve tried to outdo one another by getting top celebrities. But journalists are still the centerpiece of the dinner, with an awards celebration and the distribution of more than $125,000 in scholarships. Tickets cost $275.
“The dinner exists for the White House press corps to have a social evening with the president and White House staff and to honor the work of our members and to award scholarships,” said Steve Thomma, the vice president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a senior White House correspondent, as well as government and politics editor for McClatchy. “At its core, that’s still what the dinner is all about.”