WASHINGTON | The president had a pretty good weekend.
Legislative victories are one thing, but for sublime pleasure it would be hard to beat this two-day period, where he presided over the assassination of America’s most wanted terrorist and vanquished his biggest political rival in this early stage of the 2012 presidential campaign.
You know about Osama bin Laden. The night before that, however, President Barack Obama was the guest of honor at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. That’s where he and 3,000 other witnesses watched comedian Seth Meyers take out Donald Trump.
Some readers will object, no doubt, to this comparison. I agree, you can’t equate the sins of a psychopath who ordered the deaths of thousands of Americans and others around the world to the Donald. Trump’s worst offense was to have awakened the fringe element that thinks Obama is a native Kenyan who got into Harvard only through affirmative action.
But this is the Washington news media we’re talking about. And if you watched them in action Sunday night, as they scrambled to cover bin Laden’s death, it soon became clear that they hadn’t been thinking much about al-Qaida’s main man lately. On CNN, John King and Wolf Blitzer turned “Osama bin Laden is dead” into a mantra as they waited for producers to get an expert on the phone.
In fact, the Washington press corps had spent much of the preceding four days talking about Trump.
The James Brady Briefing Room inside the White House has just 49 seats. Each one is assigned to a member of the White House Correspondents Association, a 97-year-old organization that is synonymous with the phrase “media elite.”
Every spring, this tiny group manages to fill a substantially larger venue: the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton, the largest formal party space in the nation’s capital. With some 3,000 seats priced at $250 apiece, the annual White House Correspondents Dinner sells out instantly. The waiting list this year numbered just under 1,000.
Most of the seats are not filled by White House reporters, or even by journalists. In fact, as I discovered, the tables are bought by corporate lobbyists and media companies, who then invite politicians they wish to impress (or thank) — as well as the biggest celebrities they can convince to join them.
Along with the State of the Union address and the Kennedy Center Honors, the White House Correspondents Dinner has become one of Washington’s signature rituals. Because it is black-tie, it’s referred to locally as “prom night,” or sometimes “nerd prom.” Most Americans know it, if they know about it at all, as the one time of the year when the president is obliged to perform stand-up comedy.
I had never considered attending until I got the email from Howard “Extreme” Mortman, the communications director at C-SPAN. As the only network that televises every White House press briefing, as well as the dinner itself, C-SPAN doesn’t have to fight for tickets. Mortman, whom I’ve known since before his PR days, actually had a couple left over and wondered if I’d like to be his guest.
So I paid my $250 (plus expenses) and returned to the city that I’d once called home.
Steve Scully is one of those talking heads whose name is known only to C-SPAN junkies. Off-camera he is the network’s political editor. Scully is also a big shot inside the White House Correspondents Association, having served on its board nine of the past 10 years.
“When it started back in 1920, it was designed to bring in the president and press corps to have an intimate dinner,” he said. “The president doesn’t have to attend these. It’s not in the Constitution.”
But the president always attends. This year the Obamas were joined by members of their Cabinet (Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano), the opposition (John Boehner, Eric Cantor) and other politicians from across the land (Mayor Bloomberg, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer).
Meanwhile, news organizations competed to see which one could haul in the spiffiest piece of cultural furniture.
Last year it was Justin Bieber. This year, it was Jon Hamm, followed closely by Cee Lo Green and “Glee’s” Jane Lynch. Kansas City’s own Eric Stonestreet of “Modern Family” was there. He told me he’d been invited by ABC — meaning the news division.
Outside the Hilton, the red carpet and paparazzi compared favorably to the network parties I attend at the Television Critics Association tours in LA. Sean Penn, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johannson, Terrell Owens. Bristol Palin showed up with her handler, who said no interviews, please.
“Some people compare it to a Washington version of the Oscars,” Scully said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten to that yet.”
Actually, the better comparison is to the Golden Globes — not quite as thick with celebrities and a little more freewheeling. Also like the Globes, it’s run by an elite group of journalists and has money showered on it by corporations.
“As with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control,” wrote Dana Milbank in his Washington Post column on Friday. Echoing other critics, Milbank added that the dinner is “awash in lobbyist and corporate money” and “another display of Washington’s excesses.”
The New York Times quit buying a table a while back, for similar reasons. Milbank’s employer bought a table — and invited Trump to sit at it. Scully, a fair-minded C-SPANer to his marrow, won’t deny the critics their due. He merely points out that proceeds from the dinner now provide more than $100,000 a year in training and scholarships for student journalists, including kids at high schools in low-income areas of D.C.
After the red carpet and the 13 receptions (12 of them private), we crowded into the International Ballroom and waited for the first couple to arrive. The U.S. Marine Band played them in, followed by a color guard. The room sang along to the national anthem.
Dinner was next, followed by the scholarship announcements, and $8,500 prize money was handed out to four journalists for their work. The first couple shook their hands.
For the main event, the president’s team put together a spoof of the Hulk Hogan video “I’m a Real American,” interspersing a shot of Obama’s Hawaiian long-form birth certificate with images of the flag, the eagle and, of course, the Hulkster.
Next, the president came out and introduced another video, his “birth video,” he said, which “I have not seen in 50 years.”
It was a clip from Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Afterward, while the crowd was still giggling, Obama doubled his payoff.
“I want to make it clear to the Fox table,” he said, “that was not my actual birth video. That was a children’s cartoon.”
The camera cut to a shot of Table 134. Bill O’Reilly did not look amused.
The monologue — which everyone suspects was written by veteran Democratic funnyman Mark Katz — was full of birther references. About Rep. Michele Bachmann’s possible presidential bid, Obama said it struck him as “weird, because I hear she was born in Canada.”
A pause, then: “Yes, Michele, this is how it starts.”
When he finally got around to Trump, the jabs were not the kind that break skin. With the birth certificate solved, Obama said, perhaps Trump could turn his attention to other pressing questions: “Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
C-SPAN cut to Trump, who was seated directly in front of the podium, eight tables back. The Donald smiled.
Another video — one too many, it turned out — mostly poking fun at Vice President Joe Biden, then it was time for Meyers.
“SNL’s” head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor had spent the previous fortnight telling every reporter how “intimidating” it was to perform at the White House press dinner. He didn’t look intimidated. In fact, he came loaded for bear.
His routine lasted just over 20 minutes and, by my count, averaged seven punch lines a minute. That kind of volume is on a par with Jay Leno (who hosted last year’s dinner), only this was much funnier.
Meyers actually piled more jokes on C-SPAN than he did on Trump. But they were love slaps, mostly about how few people watch C-SPAN. The tables around me, filled with C-SPANers, roared with appreciation.
As for what happened next, the former Bush speechwriter David Frum, watching on C-SPAN, would later write, “When the Washington village performs a ritual humiliation, this is what it looks like.”
“Donald Trump has said he’s running for president as a Republican,” Meyers began. “Which is surprising, because I thought he was running as a joke.”
The camera cut to Trump. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
Meyers continued: “Gary Busey recently said that Donald Trump would make a great president. Of course, he also said the same thing about an old rusty bird cage he found.
“Donald Trump owns the Miss USA Pageant, which is great for Republicans because it will streamline their search for a vice president.
“Donald Trump said recently he had a great relationship with ‘the blacks,’ although unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I’ll bet he’s mistaken.”
With each punch line the response grew louder and lustier. To be sure, this was a Democratic-leaning room. But people were laughing everywhere I looked. There was blood in the water — and almost every major player in Washington in the room could sense it. The attorney general. The Homeland Security chief. Time. Newsweek. The Post. Politico. Fox News.
“I like that Trump is filthy rich but nobody told his accent,” Meyers continued. “His whole life is models and gold leaf and marble columns, but he still sounds like a know-it-all down at the OTB.”
These last two jokes, I thought, got to the heart of it. Washington, as political writer Ron Brownstein noted, is as fascinated with Hollywood as Hollywood is with Washington. But reality TV has created a new kind of celebrity, and it is crashing Washington’s party, and Washington is not amused.
Last year much of the scorn was reserved for Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino, the “Jersey Shore” star who attended the press dinner. This year it was Trump.
The person who made this all crystal clear to me was someone who has never attended the White House press dinner.
Rachel Maddow announced on her MSNBC show Thursday that she would skip the “nerd prom” once again, but would be at the network’s after-party.
In fact, she worked the bar, “Maddow’s Bar” to be precise — there was a sign overhead — at the after-party, held at the chic Italian Embassy. Network regulars such as Jonathan Alter and Andrea Mitchell mixed with Obama aide Valerie Jarrett and other politicos. Cee Lo Green came out and sang a handful of songs while partygoers shot videos on their Flip cameras.
As Maddow mixed me a Manhattan, I asked her over the din: How nerdly can the press dinner be if the first lady, Cee Lo and Jane Lynch all go? Maddow nodded, then she nicely reframed the high-school metaphor.
“The cool kids took it over,” she said.
Just then, who should appear next to me but Sue Sylvester herself. Lynch looked thrilled to introduce herself to Maddow.
“I’m a huge fan!” she said. She told Maddow she’d already introduced herself to her producer, Bill Wolff. He never appears on the show, yet Lynch was a big fan of him as well.
For once in her life, Maddow looked like she didn’t know what to say.
By the time Trump was able to formulate a response, he had to compete with bin Laden.
Sunday was a long way from Thursday, when Obama stormed into the Brady Room to announce the release of his birth record — and express his annoyance that the networks would interrupt their regular broadcasts to carry it.
“I can’t get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions,” Obama said, half-joking.
I thought of that Sunday night, as I watched various network reporters vamping for time while the president kept them waiting for the announcement of bin Laden’s death.
Some readers noted that NBC had pre-empted the last 15 minutes of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“I am wondering if Barack Obama’s delayed appearance at his impromptu press conference was simply to get revenge at Trump,” Steve Dzama wondered.
I can understand how that explanation might gain traction outside the Beltway. But that’s not how I see it from here. If anything, the president might have been settling a score with the networks, forcing them to pre-empt their lucrative prime-time shows and then wait 45 minutes for some news.
Trump? He was old news, because the night before, the cool kids — the president, the media elite and all the shiny celebrities — got their revenge.