How the White House Correspondents' Dinner became victim of own success

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner risks becoming a victim of its own success.

The event has grown massively in glitter and glamour in recent years and spawned an increasing number of ancillary parties. But what used to be the political world’s big night out has become more about Hollywood than anything else.  

“I guess it’s great for people who are at a table with a star,” said Tony Fratto, who attended the party while serving as principal deputy press secretary for former President George W. Bush.

“But I would rather see Hollywood people who are activists, or at least have a real reason to be there” in attendance, he added. By way of example, Fratto cited Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars as fictional Vice President Selina Meyer in the new HBO series “Veep.”

“I don’t know if she is going to be there this year, but it would make sense,” he said. “But the completely unrelated star whose publicist has talked to someone in order for them to get a seat there and be seen? That gets silly to me.”

There is, of course, an upside to the greater celebrity interest. Julie Mason, who serves on the board of the WHCA, noted that proceeds from the dinner go to fund journalism scholarships. The increase in Hollywood buzz, she said, “justifies raising the ticket price,” which in turn brings in a greater sum for the association’s philanthropic endeavors.

“The stars give it a certain something, a certain cachet,” Mason told The Hill.

Mason also says it’s wrong to think the dinner has followed a linear path in terms of its showbiz appeal.

“It waxes and wanes,” she said. “At the end of the Bush era, it was more difficult to get celebrities. And after 9/11, it fell off because, for obvious reasons, you didn’t want to be seen celebrating things. But, particularly since President Obama was elected, it has resurged.”

Both Mason and Fratto noted that the dinner itself cannot get bigger than it is now — there just isn’t room. The venue in which it is held, the Washington Hilton, boasts the largest ballroom in the District of Columbia. It is so tightly packed that, as Fratto put it, “it’s difficult to get through that room.”

Washington veterans recall a time when it was possible to put on an evening dress and crash the party. That is no longer even a remote possibility.

Instead, Mason said, she and all other board members receive an unusually large number of emails expressing friendship and fondness around this time of year — usually ending with an inquiry as to whether the sender could be granted a ticket.

The WHCA continues to give priority to members of the pool covering the White House, Mason said, but she also noted the growth in the other parties scheduled around the dinner and lamented their tendency to bar the door to anyone deemed to have insufficient social capital.

“The ancillary parties have really grown. But some of the things that go with that — the door lists, the exclusivity — are not really in keeping with the spirit of what we try to do. The idea of haves and have-nots — I don’t think that’s in keeping with the spirit of the weekend,” she said.

Amy Argetsinger, who has co-written The Washington Post’s “Reliable Sources” column since 2005, noted that other parties have increasingly been colonized by the denizens of Tinseltown at the expense of locals.

“There are so many stars and they have these huge cadres of showbiz people, who move in packs. It’s increasingly hard for Washington people to get into this sort of thing. Increasingly, the parties are almost completely dominated by Hollywood people with this thin veneer of Washington people.”

This was not new, she said, but the trend has accelerated:

“It was always a challenge to get into the Bloomberg party. But what has struck me in recent years is that a lot of people around town who I know don’t even try to get in there because, even if they did get in, they don’t know anybody else who’s there.”

Still, for all the griping around the dinner and the weekend, its luster is undimmed. Even Fratto, who said that the event was regarded in the Bush White House as “more of an obligation” than a real pleasure, acknowledged as much. 

In the wider Washington world, he said, “It’s a party that everybody seems to want to go to. Who doesn’t want to go to the prom, you know?"