The first sign that this was not your usual White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend came on Saturday at the Beall-Washington House in Georgetown, where Washington mover and shaker Tammy Haddad was throwing her annual garden brunch.
Most years, the scrum on the back patio of the stately manse includes a few models and actors mingling among the Beltway elite, with media moguls hobnobbing with the reporters who cover them, or running from them—in 2011, Rupert Murdoch had to be led to another room upon the appearance of New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, Fox News’ muckraking adversary.
But this year, the throng of machers had thinned, and perhaps the biggest star at the party was the actor Matt Walsh. Who? He’s an actor who plays president Selina Meyer’s press secretary on the HBO show Veep. And while a few people did approach him for selfies, the much bigger draw would have been the actual press secretary, Sean Spicer.
“But Trump banned the members of his administration from attending any of this stuff,” said a reporter from the New York Times, who explained that she was writing a scene roundup of parties this weekend. Such was the strange situation this weekend in Washington, D.C., as the White House Correspondents Association held a dinner to support journalists while, at the same time, the president held a campaign-style rally 100 miles away where he proclaimed that “media outlets like CNN and MSNBC are fake news, fake news.”
This had been expected for months, with Trump becoming the first sitting president to skip the WHCD since Ronald Reagan, whose absence was understandable because he had been just been shot by a would-be assassin. Reagan, however, still managed to call in. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair/Bloomberg canceled their annual soirees, and many news organizations said they would decline to buy tables at the gala, with those going saying they would bring journalists or academics as their guests, not celebrities. The lack of participation by the current administration meant that what’s usually a cozy intermingling of press corps and sources became a much more subdued Nerd Prom.
Enter Samantha Bee. Sensing a void to be filled, the host of Full Frontal on TBS announced that she would host a special on the same day as the dinner called “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” to be taped during the day at the Willard Hotel and aired that night, following the coverage of the real dinner. Tables could be purchased, will all the proceeds going to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We’re not trying to supersede it,” Bee told the Times. “We just want to be there in case something happens—or doesn’t happen—and ensure that we get to properly roast the president.”
On Saturday afternoon, guests arrived at the veranda of Constitution Hall, many late due to the traffic surrounding the climate change protest that saw tens of thousands of people flooding the National Mall. (The march drew bigger celebrities—Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson, Al Gore—than any of the Correspondents Dinner events). Everyone was in black-tie, and the 90-degree weather started to crest, causing some attendees to rip off their jackets as they waited in line at the bar. It was hotter than the muck of Mar-A-Lago in summertime.
“I took the train today from New York, and got out and was like, 'Ah yes, the swamp!'” said the novelist Gary Shteyngart, who was shvitzing in his tuxedo. “The swamp, it’s not drained, it’s still here.”
MSNBC anchor Ari Melber was being approached for selfies as a producer urged everyone to take their seats, so he walked past CNN anchor Jake Tapper and actress Alia Shawkat into Constitution Hall, an historic Washington venue owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (the location had to move from the Willard after demand forced planners to find a bigger venue.) Inside, the place had been set up to resemble a meta-gala, an event that could skewer the idea of the WHCD by sending up the concept of a fancy $100,000-a-table ceremony. Instead of an opulent multi-course meal, the fare would be what was described as “fancy-ass finger food,” which included a taco salad faithfully rendered to pay homage to the president’s Trump Tower lunch last Cinco de Mayo.
(Unlike the press being feted, the press who were actually covering the event were placed in a section above the gala tables, and each reporter was allocated two cans of refreshing Coors Light.)
A few minutes before the cameras started rolling on six different segments that were to be shot, Bee, in a white Altuzarra suit no less, came out and looked legitimately shellshocked by the auditorium full of people.
“I’ve never been in front of a crowd this big,” she said. “Is everybody having fun? Is everybody drunk?”
And then the show got started, with a violin intro followed by the singer Peaches leading an all-girl band wearing shirts that said “Free Press.” Bee began her rapid-fire scorched earth routine, while also thanking the journalists in the room for their service.
“Your job has never been harder, she said. “POTUS has convinced 88 percent of his fans that you’re an enemy of the people. You basically get paid to stand in a cage while a geriatric orangutan and his pet mob scream at you. It’s like a reverse zoo. But you carry on.”
These bits drew instant rapturous applause from the room, as they played directly to her base, with Bee whipping the room into a frenzy. The only abstainers from the whooping and clapping were, as it happened, the reporters in the press pen, who were trying to appear objective.
At one point during a break in the filming, Bee came out to say that “You’re going to want to just keep your eyes on this podium,” pointing to a stand to her left. There was, she explained, a special guest who would be appearing at some point—it was Will Ferrell, who brought his George W. Bush impression out of retirement for the occasion.
“I’ll be honest, I never liked you guys in the press,” he said, as Dubya. “You guys would always sneak up on me with gotcha questions like, ‘Why are we going to war? Gotcha!’ ‘Why didn’t you respond quicker to Hurricane Katrina? Gotcha!”
That was the closest anyone would get to seeing a president on Saturday. As crisply dressed attendees walked up to the Washington Hilton for the real dinner a few hours later, a pro-press demonstration took over the front lawn, with signs such as “Thank you reporters, keep up the good work” and “We are here, you are hiding, you pussy coward.”
“Don’t let Spicer get away with it!” one demonstrator yelled to David Bradley, the owner of Atlantic Media, as he walked into the Hilton. As it happened, Bradley hosted the one event that was attended by a Trump cabinet member—the dinner at his Embassy Row mansion Friday drew Gen. James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense. According to the Washington Post, after word got out that North Korea had fired a ballistic missile, Atlantic editor Jeff Goldberg announced to the crowd, “Some advice to people at dinner—if Jim Mattis leaves suddenly, we’re going to move the party to the basement!”
Once inside the Hilton, there were three stories of cocktail parties, hosted The W_all Street Journal_, the Associated Press, USA Today, and others, with attendees hopping between each one. The hotter ticket, arguably, was the after party for Bee’s bash, which was held at the top-floor terrace of the W Hotel, with its unparalleled views of the East Wing of the White House, and the presidential residence, which was empty—by the time guests started arriving at the party (the president had already left for the rally in Pennsylvania). It was co-hosted by New York magazine’s Vulture, which meant staffers had been shipped down via the Acela corridor, and the site’s D.C.-based correspondents came out of the woodwork to attend.
“I mean, this is pretty elitist,” said Jonathan Chait, the magazine's political columnist, referring to the weekend, adding that he doesn’t usually go to these things.
By the time the dinner got underway across town, Bee arrived at her own party, surrounded by a scrum of guards.
“I had such a good like...like I personally had a good time,” Bee said, standing next to platters of crab cake sliders. “I don’t really stand in front of a stage in front thousands of people. That’s not a run-of-the-mill experience for me.”
When asked whether the show would upstage the one that was about to start a few blocks away, at the Washington Hilton, she said, referring to the official dinner's host Hasan Minhaj, “I’m friends with Hasan, and I want him to do well! I think he’s going to kill it."
Despite alleging that people urged him to go easy on Trump as the host of the WHCD, Minhaj did not, spitting out jokes about the president’s golfing habits and alleged collusion with Russia to influence the election.
“I would say it is an honor to be here, but that would be an alternative fact—it is not,” he said. “No one wanted to do this. So of course it lands in the hands of an immigrant.”
No one at the W was paying attention to the real dinner, especially after the night’s entertainment, Elvis Costello, took the stage to start the first of his two sets.
“We were making a set list, and everything we put on sounded like the start of a joke,” he said before ripping into “Accidents Will Happen.” “But I think I’ll leave the comedy to Sam.”
Meanwhile, a little after 10:00 p.m. those on the balcony saw Marine One touch down on the South Lawn of the White House. The president disembarked, gave a thumbs up to the reporters in the press pool, and went inside, alone.
By midnight, the lights in the residence were off.
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