The Girl Next Door
Hollywood on the Potomac hits town
By Frank Davies
WASHINGTON Ben and Jennifer will be there tonight. So will Demi and Ashton, Tom and Katie, not to mention Tyra, Eva, Sting, Ludacris, Whoopi and Sully (that's Chesley Sullenberger, the heroic pilot).
And if you want real star power, don't forget Barack and Michelle.
It's the annual version of Hollywood on the Potomac, otherwise known as the White House Correspondents Dinner. A combination of prom night and Super Bowl excess, it's a chance for journalists and government officials to schmooze and shamelessly gawk at starlets and athletes.
This year, with President Barack Obama attending his first dinner, it's bigger than ever, attracting more of an A-list crowd. The black-tie event sold out in early March all 2,700 tickets, at $200 a pop, gone in eight days said Julia Whiston, executive director of the correspondents association.
A once-staid affair dominated by the print media, it has become a TV event, with broadcast and cable news companies in a fierce arms race for boldface names. Guests will arrive on a red carpet, entertainment shows will carry clips, and C-SPAN will put aside replays of budget hearings for live coverage of the dinner.
This year, ABC News quickly landed as guests at their tables the big names in the Obama White House, including Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff, and top advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. For diversity, how about rocker Jon Bon Jovi, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Justice Antonin Scalia?
But NBC counterattacked with a full blast of Hollywood: Mike Myers, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Fallon and Felicity Huffman, for starters. For gravitas, they added Warren Buffett and James Jones, national security adviser.
"It used to be a rock star at this dinner was the White House chief of staff, not Steve Tyler of Aerosmith," said Carol Joynt, a former TV producer who chronicles Washington society.
She has attended two dozen dinners and seen them evolve from low-key events where reporters chatted up government sources to a series of "circus acts," with strange juxtapositions of power and fluff. "It's become just a mashed-up free-for-all," Joynt said.
Four years ago, at a CNN party before the dinner, Gen. Tommy Franks talked about how to find and kill Osama bin Laden while a few feet away, Serena Williams and Wayne Newton joked about Las Vegas with Wolf Blitzer.
Joynt thinks this mingling with celebrities "can be harmless, but it adds to the media's adoration of itself. It's a little unseemly. It has become such a big deal."
The impression of excessive coziness between media and government officials led one organization, The New York Times, to boycott the event for the second year.
(Full disclosure: MediaNews, which owns the Mercury News, is springing for two tables, at a cost of $4,000. The guest is Christina Reynolds, White House director of media affairs).
The dinner has also morphed into a long weekend of parties and brunches. But with media companies hurting and layoffs a weekly occurrence, there have been cutbacks this year.
Bloomberg and Vanity Fair used to host lavish, ever-expanding post-dinner parties. Tonight, they are joining forces with a scaled-back, very exclusive soiree for 200 guests at the French ambassador's residence. Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are expected.
The dinner itself is cutting back in a symbolic way eliminating the dessert. Whiston said the association will give the $13,000 saved, plus an additional $10,000, to a local homeless program.
The real suspense of the evening will build in the Washington Hilton after the petite filets and asparagus with Porcini mushroom demi-glace are cleared away. Will Obama strike the right notes, with a few jabs at the media and some self-deprecating humor?
And how will the featured entertainer, tart-tongued comedian Wanda Sykes, perform? Expect some zingers at an array of targets, but Sykes, after all, contributed to the Obama campaign.
The entertainment is the most unpredictable element of the evening. In recent years, guests talked over a performance of Ray Charles and largely ignored Rich Little. Stephen Colbert became a YouTube hit with his scathing critique of President Bush and the White House press corps.
Joynt, who was Larry King's producer, recalled how in 1997 she helped recruit a little-known late-night comic, Jon Stewart, at the last minute when Rosie O'Donnell bailed out. Stewart had good material, but was preempted by Bill Clinton, who brought down the house with jokes provided by another comedian Al Franken.
If you need any proof that entertainment and politics are now hopelessly mashed up, consider:
Stewart is now the host of the popular Daily Show, with "fake news" that sometimes reveals the truth of a situation better than TV news. And Franken, best known for "Saturday Night Live" routines, is likely to become the next U.S. senator from Minnesota.
ON TV C-SPAN will broadcast the dinner live from 5-6 p.m. tonight.