Consider this hypothetical: You are a consultant. You do damage control. You work
to improve the public image of clients who have nowhere to go but up. Your client
shows up fresh off some image-tarnishing scandal. The public is disgusted. Your
client asks, “How can I win back hearts and minds?”
And then comes your advice: “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t change a
It would never happen, right? Not if you ever wanted to remain in business, it
wouldn’t. And, yet, that is exactly what Washington, D.C. does every single year.
Let me explain.
Washington, D.C. – in all of its various manifestations – is the laughing stock of
America. Washington politicians, reporters, lobbyists, etc. – they all “enjoy” public
approval ratings in the teens, embarrassing results to say the least. And, yet, every
single spring, they trot out their Academy Awards, if you will: A week long orgy of
self-celebration – the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner and
its two-dozen related parties that spread out for nearly a week. Most everyone in
Washington admits that the whole affair is gaudy and fairly embarrassing … but it
doesn’t stop them. Washington is that client badly in need of a public relations
makeover and yet the collective advice it offers itself when it looks in the mirror is: Don’t change a thing.
Washington should be ashamed.
As someone who covered this annual affair for a decade, I quit my job at Politico last
year to direct a documentary on it – “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest
Week” (www.nerdpromthemovie.com). But what was more shocking than what I
unearthed about week’s main driving force (see: lobbying, business opportunities,
status positioning, etc.) was how terribly unconcerned many Washingtonians are
with how their biggest annual moment appears to those outside the Beltway.
“This is how Washington works,” one reporter told me. “Dude, it’s just a dinner,”
said another (which is of course the equivalent of calling the Super Bowl “just a
If Washington is ever to live up to the ethos it was founded upon – doing well by
others (as compared to doing well by ourselves), representing the will and values of
the governed, supporting civic-mindedness – it needs to be more concerned with
how it’s viewed by those very people it’s designed to serve. Washington, by design,
gains its power when it is accorded the respect of those who send people here to
represent them. And, for many outside of Washington, White House
Correspondents’ Weekend has come to represent everything that’s wrong with our
nation’s capitol: A press corps too cozy with the powerful, a government town
overwhelming influenced by financial interests and a political class far too eager to
bask in self-celebration when the rest of the country is screaming, “What do you
have to celebrate?”
Perhaps once it was just a dinner. Nearly 100 years later, however, it’s an accurate
barometer by which to gauge every year the priorities of America’s political class.
Those priorities need a major overhaul if this town is to ever regain legitimacy in
the eyes of the American public. Who amongst us will deliver the tough talk we
need? And, more importantly, who in town is willing to listen?
Patrick Gavin is the writer and director of “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week”