The White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner

New Zealand Sunday Star Times, May 7, 2006

Denis Dutton

There are two Hilton hotels in Washington D.C., so it pays to be clear with your taxi driver. The small Capital Hilton is downtown, near the White House. If you’re in route to the larger one on Connecticut Avenue, just ask for the Hinckley Hilton — named for John Hinckley, who shot and wounded President Reagan there in 1983.

Bad taste perhaps, but then so are many of the attempts at good-humored character assassination aimed at presidents every year in the Hinckley Hilton during the White House Press Correspondents’ Annual Dinner.

It’s a glittering, black-tie event, Washington’s answer to the Academy Awards, a “Who’s Who of power and celebrity,” “biggest social event of the year for political Washington,” a place where “politicians, journalists, and A-list celebrities rub shoulders,” as the puffery puts it. Invitations are hard to score, especially for people who live in New Zealand, a country not often on the minds of D.C. journalists and power brokers.

So imagine my surprise to find, next to yet another message announcing I’d won the Nigerian lottery, an email asking if, as the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, I’d be able to attend the dinner on April 29th as a guest of the Washington Times. Would I?

Dine with George W. Bush and you break bread with the world’s most desirable terrorist target, so we all passed through metal detectors to get into the Hilton Ballroom. Tuxedos do not set off these devices, I discovered. Women’s evening dresses are different. The sequins and bling convinced the machines that each wearer must be carrying a pipe bomb. So there were the glitterati, one by one, arms outstretched, being magnetically hand frisked by Secret Service guards.

A statistical curiosity: It is said that the chief executives of corporations world-wide tend to be significantly taller than their national average. At 180 cms, I’m no shorty, but at this event I sometimes felt like I’d stumbled into a basketball players’ prom. Washington’s power elite include an inordinate number of very tall men, with tall very wives at their sides.

At our table, Wesley Pruden, editor of the Washington Times, presided with soft, Southern courtesy. With him was Suzanne Fields, the vivacious columnist who had the bright idea to invite me, and Daniel Wattenberg, the paper’s arts editor.

On my left was Heng Chee Chan, Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore, a gracious lady with degrees in English literature and, I’d guess from our short chat, an IQ of 180. To my right sat James H. Billington, the tall, gentlemanly Librarian of Congress — only the 13th person to hold this title since 1800. Since I was from the dark side — the web — he wanted to talk about electronic books. As an experiment, Billington had spent an entire weekend reading nothing but ebooks. It drove him nearly insane. “Never again,” he declared.

We agreed that if the paper book had been invented last month, this lovely idea of placing printed words on both sides of flattened tree pulp, and binding it together down one edge, would be regarded as a great advance, a milestone of information technology.

Celebrities abounded in the Ballroom, though with 2600 enjoying the filet mignon, I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t meet them all. And who was that familiar face? Oh yes, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. There was George Clooney, Michael Bloomberg, and my friend and Arts & Letters Daily fan, David Brooks of the New York Times.

Somewhere in the crowd were Anna Kournikova, George Soros, James Denton, the beefcake plumber in Desperate Housewives, and Henry Kissinger mit Frau, along with senators and generals of the army. The dress uniforms of the Joint Chiefs of Staff include enough gold braid to account for a significant slice of Pentagon spending: by any standard, they are gorgeous.

There were speeches about the White House Press Correspondents’ Association, plus the presentation of a few modest scholarships for journalism students. The declared career aim of one of these was “helping those in need” and making “a difference in the world.” Tip to applicants: you’ll never get into journalism in the U.S. with a career intention “accurately to report the facts.”

People who know George W. Bush personally have long insisted that in private he is a very funny man. You’d never guess it from his wooden, reading-one-word-at-a-time public speeches. His ad libs can be his handlers’ nightmares, and his linguistic confusions have generated whole books. But these were the very foibles he sent up in his sketch.

A second podium appreared, with a George Bush doppelgänger in the form of comedian and celebrity impersonator James Bridges. Bridges’s make-up was masterful, but his ability to imitate Dubya’s voice, accent, and mannerisms was phenomenal. Look away from the stage, and you couldn’t be sure who was speaking.

George W. Bush and James Bridges
Bush would deliver a line of his official speech: “As you know, I always look forward to these dinners.” Then Bush’s Id would interject with what was really on his mind: “It’s just a bunch of media types, Hollywood liberals, Democrats. How come I can’t have dinner with the 36% of the people who like me?"

Bush’s Id wished the crowd was friendlier: “Only thing’s missin’ is Hillary Clinton, sittin’ on the front row, rollin’ her ass.”

“Yes, my fellow Americans,” he proclaimed, “in the words of Sigmund Freud, ‘I have a dream’.”

“Some of my critics in the international community call me arrogant. I will not even honour that with a response. [pause] Screw ’em.”

Referring to recent ructions that saw Bush’s Press Secretary sacked and Karl Rove moved aside, the real Bush assumed a stupid grin and told the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m feeling really chipper tonight. I survived the White House shake-up.” (Rove was at the next table, smiling cherubically.)

The audience laughter was spontaneous, raucous, and surprised. Bush and Bridges got a standing ovation, likely one of very few this president has received from a non-Republican audience. Then TV political entertainer Stephen Colbert stepped up for what amounted to a sarcastic, 15-minute indictment of the president.

Colbert got off some stinging lines. “I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least,” he pronounced, “and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” But his jib about the administration rearranging deck chairs on the Hindenburg was an old joke, and it elicited only scattered laughter.

One Colbert wisecrack was directed not at Bush, but at the Chinese Ambassador, who was in the audience: “Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong, welcome. Your great country makes our Happy Meals possible.” It was a joke that might have been made about Japan in the 1950s, but it was weirdly rude and anachronistic at an event where D.C. insiders are supposed to take pot shots at each other.

Since the event, the Bushophobic segment of the blogophere has been running hot with indictments of the mainstream media for not giving more coverage to Colbert. I can understand the spleen: anyone who despises Bush and reads the transcript will be in jolly agreement with Colbert. But a celebrity roast is not a political column. Colbert was ridiculing a president who had already exquisitely mocked himself, his mannerisms and malapropisms. George Bush playing straight man against his own inarticulate, ridiculous Id was a funnier show. In fact, as the New York Times admitted, he stole the show.

A combination jetlag and cabernet did me in by 2.00 A.M., but not before I managed a round of post-dinner receptions catered by media from the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal to CNN and The Atlantic Monthly. There was endless talk of policies and new strategies in Republican and Democratic quarters.

It was invigorating, and it made the dinner a markedly different event from the usual Hollywood celebrity bashes. Facts and arguments count here. These writers and thinkers, wonks with thick glasses and balding pates, may not be the sexiest crew, but they have more to do with how people live their lives than last season’s blockbusters. Anybody remember King Kong?

I never met the President, who left the event immediately. But I encountered one of his speech writers, a man who reads Arts & Letters Daily “every few days.” Later on that night, a journalist introduced me to the director of a policy unit at the White House. He reads Arts & Letters Daily “regularly,” but since he can’t every day, someone on his staff is assigned to check it for essays and articles relevant to government initiatives.

A little like that old Steinlager ad, I guess: a picture of the White House overwritten, “They’re reading our webpage here.” To what effect remains a mystery to me.