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.