White House Press Dinner: Washington Goes Glam for Annual 'Prom'

Washington competes with Hollywood for glitz, glamour and celebrity star power

April 29, 2010, 4:17 PM

April 30, 2010 -- What do actress Elisabeth Shue, tween sensation Justin Bieber, Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow and ubiquitous television personality Ryan Seacrest all have in common this weekend?

They are just some of the A-list celebrities who will jet into Washington this weekend to attend the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, the premiere black tie event in the nation's capital.

It is the one weekend a year when stodgy Washington can compete with Hollywood for glitz, glamour and celebrity star power.

Other celebrities reportedly attending Saturday's dinner include "Sex and the City's" Kristin Davis, actress Scarlett Johansson, Golden Girl Betty White, new Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin.

The annual event brings together Cabinet members, political staffers, movie stars, athletes and journalists for an evening of comedy, digital picture snapping, and plenty of schmoozing.

E! executive news editor Ken Baker put the weekend in context for ABC News.

"It's not quite the Oscars, it's not even really the Golden Globes and it's not really the Grammys or MTV Movie Awards, but it's cool," he said. "It's a good event."

And the reason why it is such a hot ticket for celebrities who have been to those types of events countless times over the years?

"Two words – the president," Baker said. "Barack Obama is the biggest celebrity in the world."

"When you're a Hollywood celebrity, unless you're paying a lot of money to go to a fundraiser that the president is going to attend, you don't really get to have time with the president," Baker said. "That's a real status symbol and a cool life experience."

Baker, a veteran celebrity journalist, said that Hollywood does not have an event quite like the correspondents' dinner, with the president and "all these movers and shakers, truly important people unlike fake important people like everyone out here in Hollywood."

Late-night comedian Jay Leno will be the featured entertainment at the dinner.

This year's dinner will have an eco-friendly theme. The White House Correspondents Association partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization, to reduce the ecological footprint of the event.

"This will be the most eco-friendly dinner ever hosted by the association,'' said White House Correspondents' Association president Ed Chen of Bloomberg News, who served as a senior communications adviser to the NRDC in 2006. "And we encourage our members and guests to join in that effort, such as by car-pooling, using hybrid vehicles and, for long-distance travelers to Washington, buying carbon-offsets."

Washington Goes Glam for White House Correspondents' Dinner

For the meal, the association made an effort to obtain locally produced and organic food and wine and any uneaten meals will be distributed to the Washington D.C. Central Kitchen.

The focus is not all on the celebrities this weekend. Today the association will award $132,500 in scholarship money to eighteen college students. Since 1991, the WHCA has awarded nearly $360,000 in scholarship money to 42 graduating high school seniors and college-level students in order for them to pursue studies in the field of journalism.

And don't even think of trying to snag a seat – the dinner is completely sold out (2,600 guests) and the wait list is "half-way to Baltimore," Chen joked.

The New York Times will boycott the event for the third year in a row, citing concerns that the dinner gives the impression that reporters are cozying up to administration officials.

Leno may be the featured comedian on Saturday night, but Obama will try to give him a run for his money by showcasing his own comedic chops with the traditional presidential stand up routine, a staple of the spring black tie dinner season in Washington.

Eric Schnure, a veteran political speechwriter and comedy writer, said that one direction Obama could go is to play off of the recent reports about tense relations between the White House and the reporters who cover it.

"That's safe ground for him to joke about because it touches folks in the audience and it allows him to be self-deprecating, which obviously works so well in these events," Schnure said.

Sure, Obama could go too far – a joke last year about the gathered reporters all voting for him fell a bit flat, perhaps because it hit too close to home to a sensitive press corps.

"That's the secret to all humor, isn't it? Doing that delicate dance," Schnure said. "Finding the right tone and the right balance. I would think that without touching on that or acknowledging that, it because a bit obvious in its absence."

Such routines require a significant amount of preparation, rehearsal and guts. So why do politicians ever agree to do this? Why take a chance at jokes falling flat and routines bombing?

"There is a tradition to doing these things, a prestige to do these kinds of events," Schnure said. "I think the driving force is that politicians are in the business of having people like them and it's not as much getting laughs as it is being liked."

Several comedy writers who have worked with lawmakers on these kinds of appearances told ABC News that a stand-up comedy act is a powerful tool to show that politicians don't take themselves too seriously, and it gives them a chance to bask in a more forgiving spotlight.

Landon Parvin, who has written comedy routines for several Republican presidents, including former President George W. Bush, said these speeches are "another means for the public to judge the president."

"People don't get to see a president in that kind of humorous mode very often," Parvin said.

Most presidents have used the occasion to lighten up a bit and poke fun at themselves, as Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did in their dinner appearances. Self-deprecating humor is always the gold standard for such an event.

At his last dinner in 2000, Clinton joked about what life would be like after he moved out of the White House.

"But a year from now, I'll have to watch someone else give this speech. And I will feel an onset of that rare affliction, unique to former presidents. AGDD -- Attention-Getting Deficit Disorder," Clinton said.

Over his two terms, Bush provided ample material for the late-night comedians and the correspondents' dinner gave him a chance, for one night a year, to show that can get in on the joke too.

"You know, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. After he left office, Vice President Gore won an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize. Hey, I don't know, I might win a prize -- Publishing Clearinghouse or something," he said to laughter.

Schnure said that even with a potentially cynical crowd like the Washington press corps, it is still a crowd that wants to see the president pull off a successful comedy bit.

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