By Jason Zengerle
This Saturday night, I will not be at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—that annual black-tie celebration (and self-celebration) of the political press corps that brings together Washington and Hollywood at the Hilton where Ronald Reagan was shot. I didn’t go to the WHCD last year, nor did I go the year before that. In fact, I’ve never attended the WHCD. The closest I ever came was 15 or so years ago, when I went to a pre-dinner cocktail party hosted by the magazine I was working for at the time, where I met Gheorghe Muresan and watched someone mistake my then-colleague Ryan Lizza for Matt Drudge (if you squint you can kind of see it). I wasn’t high enough on the masthead to merit a ($300) seat at the actual dinner.
Not that I was missing anything. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the annual event that features the president telling his own lame jokes, and then sitting through a comedian (this year Cecily Strong will do the honors) making fun of him, while members of the press—who typically invite Hollywood celebrities and well-heeled advertisers as their guests—eat bad food and look at their watches waiting to get to the glamorous after-parties.
I don’t mean to brag when I say that I miss out on all this. The only thing I find less appealing than the prospect of going to the WHCD is boasting about not going to the WHCD. Tom Brokaw refused to attend to protest the presence of Lindsay Lohan (and other frivolous celebrities). The late Christopher Hitchens walked out of the WHCD one year to express his contempt for the comic stylings of Rich Little. The New York Times doesn’t allow any of its reporters to attend the WHCD because, as the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet once explained, the event “sends the wrong signal to our readers.” Last year, the Times‘s Mark Leibovich, already not attending the WHCD per his employer’s policy, made an even bigger show of his non-attendance by booking a hotel room upstairs from the WHCD and, along with the public radio show “On the Media,” hosted a “Media Ethics Colloquy.” The punch line? No one came!
And now along comes Patrick Gavin with his new documentary Nerd Prom, which casts the harshest light yet on the WHCD and seeks to put the final nail in the evening’s coffin. As a reporter for Politico, Gavin used to cover the WHCD the way E! covers the Oscars, staking out the red carpet to ambush stars like Kim Kardashian, and ask David Axelrod, “Who are you wearing?” He was, as he concedes, “the king of the clown question.” But last year Gavin quit his job at Politico, turned his “dunce’s cap into a reporter’s hat,” and decided to subject the WHCD to more serious scrutiny.
Gavin rightly zings the White House Correspondents’ Association—which hosts the dinner in order to raise money for its scholarship fund—when he discovers in the film that the association pays its CEO more than it gives to journalism students. He makes sport of the celebrities who turn out for the dinner and aren’t able to name even a single White House correspondent. And he shows how everyone—from journalists and celebs, to corporations and lobbyists—uses the dinner to pedal their wares and build their own “brand awareness.” Gavin ends the film with a heart-felt soliloquy, delivered as he drives himself home through the empty Nation’s Capital streets after the WHCD, about how the WHCD falls short of its—and the DC press corps’—ideals. “This is a town that, let’s not forget, was built on public service,” he says. “And so I feel accordingly, our biggest moment every year should at least try, try, to stay faithful to that, and it doesn’t.”
In other words, Nerd Prom is an act of expiation. But in trying to take down the WHCD, Gavin makes the category mistake of building it up. “The most important, enormous, and extensive moment every single year in Washington, D.C.,” Gavin calls it, likening it to the Oscars for Los Angeles or Mardi Gras for New Orleans. But that’s just not the case. Well, maybe it is if you’re the guy who covers parties forPolitico. But for most political journalists—and, lord knows, for most Washingtonians and most Americans—the WHCD isn’t representative of anything. It’s a party—nothing more, nothing less—and denouncing it, or celebrating it, is just kind of stupid.
And yet, there’s something admirable about Nerd Prom, and Gavin’s attempt to make amends for the part he once played in this ridiculous spectacle. No, he didn’t destroy democracy, nor did the WHCD. In the end, we are afflicted by much bigger problems than a rubber-chicken dinner in a cavernous D.C. hotel ballroom—and the countless pre- and after-parties that have spun off of it. My only hope is that Gavin, a talented reporter and a promising documentarian, can now attain the proper mindset about the WHCD, and neither participate in it nor decry it, and do what the vast majority of Americans will do this Saturday night. He can just ignore it.
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