‘Colin Firth is here!”
“Have you seen Colin Firth?”
Such were the most frequently asked questions and exclamations at the White House Correspondents Dinner at the Reagan Hilton on Saturday night.
Every year, the dinner is an odd scene. As President Bush put it: “It’s an interesting crowd. You know, just think — Pamela Anderson and Mitt Romney in the same room. Isn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse?”
Luckily for Romney — who was scheduled to sit at National Review’s table — the former Massachusetts governor was called off to Nevada to campaign for John McCain and didn’t make the dinner. But the policy wonks and politicos and Secretary of State were dressed to the nines there along with Ben (Affleck) and Jen (Garner), Will.i.am, Marcia Cross, Tracey Ullman, and, yes, Colin Firth — accent and all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m always up for a laugh. I, for goodness sake, found redeeming value in Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Even if I didn’t know who the Jonas Brothers are, I like to think of myself as engaged with pop culture — or at least an active observer of it. I didn’t complain when Colin Firth smiled at me. But when I hear that every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended the dinners, I can’t help but wonder why.
The dinner on one level could be considered simple fun. Expensive fun, but fun all the same. Dress up. Go with a different crowd. Sometimes there is a colorful surprise. The troops are always honored. No real harm done.
But what about the president? Why should he perform for the press? I cringed Saturday night, far beyond his Dick Cheney peephole sex joke. Even while he conducted the Marine band I had this nagging feeling he was the butt of a joke to a majority of the room, viewing the president of the United States as a goofball. Who decided the president should be doing stand-up? He shouldn’t be. Even when he’s funny, there’s something off about the whole time-and-resource-sucking charade.
And, no, I don’t think Dick Cheney is “kind of pervy.” But despite that — and a few too many verging-on-awkward jokes about White House Press Secretary Dana Perino’s hotness — Craig Ferguson, the comedian of the night, got it: “You people disagree on everything. . . . I knew when I came here that this place would be full of contentious and contrary people. People who argue all the time. May I remind you as a new American that we need that. That’s what this place is all about.”
Things that happen in D.C. matter. At the end of the night, none of what goes on in Washington is actually a joke. I’m all for breaking bread. We, naturally, need that — to have real give and take and fellowship — for both personal and professional reasons.
What we don’t need, though, is to wannabe. And the White House Correspondents Dinner is wannabe night. There are the faux Hollywood parties and the red carpet and the paparazzi. It could be harmless once in a blue moon. But sitting there Saturday night, realizing this is a Washington institution — one of a number of similar evenings, in fact — I thought: “This isn’t right.”
The president said: “I love the mixed crowds here.” I prefer mixed crowds on the Hill, when they actually get something worthwhile done. And, yes, take time to laugh at good hearty jokes together, but not at the president looking a little silly for your entertainment. (There were moments Saturday night I worried they weren’t laughing with him but at him, taking joy in the press-mandated abasement of the president.)
If the White House Correspondents Dinner can in any way be considered a look into the soul of the Beltway, bizarrely, the problem with Washington, D.C., may be that delicate, insecure souls (really! You’d be surprised!) there don’t take themselves seriously enough. I look forward to the president who breaks the surly tradition and doesn’t show to the performance. There’s nothing to lose — the press won’t like you even if you willfully make a fool of yourself at their command.