When I was a political reporter in Washington, I used to loathe the White House Correspondents Dinner. I hated how it portrayed Beltway journalism as a game. How it reduced the project of government accountability to performative antagonism practiced daily by reporters in White House press briefings — a performance exposed annually at a dinner where the most powerful people in the world would rub elbows and yuck it up about funny “inside jokes” like George W. Bush’s bungling of the Iraq War and the media’s culpability in helping him do it.
Maybe because I was a reporter at the time, I always considered the dinner’s rottenness from the perspective of the relationship between the media and politicians, lamenting that images from the Washington Hilton of the press mingling with administration officials in black tie undercut the public’s faith in an independent media.
But the further away I’ve gotten from the experience — and the faster our republic has tumbled toward oblivion — the more I’ve considered how the dinner contributed in other, significant ways to the brokenness of our current political moment: The dinner highlights the laughable disconnect between the people in Washington with the power to do something (the dinner attendees) and the rest of us mere mortals (people largely not watching the dinner at home on C-SPAN).
The presidency of Barack Obama transformed the Democratic Party in ways many pundits already have explored ad nauseum, from a revolution in data analytics to Obama’s creation of an entire political infrastructure outside of the Democratic National Committee. Yet, the White House Correspondents Dinner, now that it’s back from its hiatus in the two years we acknowledged the ongoing pandemic as real, is also a reminder of perhaps Obama’s worst contribution to modern politics: the marriage between actual Hollywood and the “Hollywood for ugly people” known as Washington.
When the A-List came to Washington and started treating formerly anonymous staffers as personalities on their level, it was an Icarus moment that transformed the possibility of what government service could do for any one individual staffer, as opposed to what service should do for the country.
Celebrities being interested in Obama brought Hollywood to Washington in a way Washington had never seen previously, at least not without the barrier of a glass screen and the opening bars of The West Wing credits. It allowed political operatives who always saw the natural outgrowth of the their careers as cashing out on K Street to think differently about what politics could do for them as sentient, individual brands with Twitter accounts and proximity to celebrity instead of just power.
In the Obama years, the White House Correspondents Dinner transformed and exploded, driven by an increased interest from culturally cool famous people in a president they considered to be cool, also. Celebrities flocked to Washington for the last weekend in April: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Bradley Cooper, Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner, Demi Moore, Eva Longoria, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Scarlett Johansson, Ashley Judd, most of the cast of Saturday Night Live, top fashion designers, and any number of other people who thought for a brief moment that being attached to politics gave them capital in their own celebrity circles. (The stream of stars jet-setting to the Beltway for dinner festivities only slowed at the end of Obama’s second term because the D.C. set could not stop literally and shamelessly pawing at them.)
But to truly understand what allowed one weekend of cocktail parties and brunches to change Washington, you also have to remember the dynamics of 2009: Twitter was exploding as a tool for individual staffers who once were largely anonymous to build their own voices and followings, a generation of young Democratic staffers drunk on Aaron Sorkin thought The West Wing could be real life and that they somehow could be Rob Lowe. With the energy and technocratic sleekness of the Obama machine, they saw themselves as glamorous characters on a TV show instead of cogs in a bureaucracy, and then the White House Correspondents Dinner came along, and they met their heroes.
If this seems cynical to you, consider that current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki went on Rob Lowe’s podcast to tell the actor that bingeing the Emmy-winning political series, and his character specifically, was “inspiring” and “really brought me back to politics.” And then ask yourself who any of that is for.
Without the Obama-era White House Correspondents dinner, there is no Psaki on Lowe’s podcast. There are no staged-at-the-White House Annie Leibovitz portraits of Psaki in Vogue Magazine, seven months after the attempted insurrection at the Capitol in which white nationalists tried to block her from stepping foot in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the first place. She’s not fighting with Fox News’s Peter Doocy for the Twitter likes. And there are no ongoing negotiations for her to reportedly host her own television show on MSNBC, all while she’s still representing the federal government on behalf of the president with the national media every day.
Without the Obama-era White House Correspondents Dinner, there likely is no multimillion-dollar, multi-channel Pod Bros empire. And there is likely no Time’s Up scandal in which former top Michelle Obama staffer Tina Tchen, who delighted in leveraging the organization to become personally close to its celebrity board of 71 A-List actresses, allows her devotion to power and influence to put disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo ahead of the survivors the organization was supposed to protect.
And maybe without this cursed annual political-celebrity dinner, there wouldn’t have been a star-studded 60th-birthday party for Obama himself on Martha’s Vineyard in August 2021, during a surge of a pandemic that is hurtling toward claiming a million American lives — a party that opened the door for Republicans to turn their misguided and bad-faith talking points about Democrats being hypocritical, coastal elites into something true for a night.
In short, the people clamoring for a return to the White House Correspondents Dinner as a “return to normal” are the people professionally trained to turn their proximity to power into personal power for themselves, and who now see a legitimate avenue to profit off pseudo-celebrity gained through politics as a spectacle. The years of 2009 to 2016 opened the door to more than what was previously possible.
When Spotify and HBO deals are the end goal for public service, what does that say about the motives of those who should be on the front lines for the fight for democracy? I’m not arguing that the traditional revolving door for public officials between lobbying and government is good. It’s not! But the incentives for a person in government who wants to cash out the old-fashioned way is to spend years in government, understand how it works, and be well-connected within it. The incentives for a person in government who wants a podcast deal is to tweet a lot and hope enough people smash that retweet button to become a Blue Checkmark.
Of course, it also should be noted that former president and current threat to democracy Donald Trump has alleged that his attendance at the dinner in 2011 — and Obama’s joke about him during his set — helped fuel the hate fire for his own White House run. Nothing about the grossness of this one weekend of cocktail parties or Democrats wanting to be cool by association invalidates the much more significant grossness of how media and celebrity normalized Trump, helped him attain power, and profited off keeping him there.
But the question here is of expectations and who we should expect better from. If at a time of great peril for democracy, you can’t expect more from the corporate media and you can’t expect more from the Republican party, it would be nice to feel as if Democrats cared more about protecting the franchise and holding those who want to undermine our elections accountable than having J-Lo sing at Inauguration two weeks after the Capitol was attacked.
The only silver lining is that if the republic as we know ends soon, so, too, will the White House Correspondents Dinner. And no one’s “Spotted” shout-out in the Politico Playbook will save them then.
Meredith Shiner is a writer and communications consultant based in Chicago. She covered national politics and Congress in Washington from 2009-16.