Pollywood Nights – When Politics and Stars Collide
The White House Correspondents Association Weekend has become an extended East Coast version of the Oscars – it’s chic, celeb-laden, and media-frenzied. But how much of the Hollywoodization of D.C. is a good thing?
By Michael M. Clements
There are always curious crowds milling about the fringes of the Washington Hilton on the night of The White House Correspondents Association Dinner (WHCAD). They come to capture hastily snapped pictures of favorite stars, hoping to add celebrity spice to their Facebook and flickr accounts. If they’re lucky, they might actually get a shot with Ryan Seacrest, one of the Jonas Brothers, or the current Holy Grail of big game digital camera hunting, the elusive Canadian, Justin Beiber. Sprinkled amongst the celeb gawkers are protestors advocating for issues as diverse as vegetarian lifestyles, a nuclear-free world, and impeachment of the sitting president – no matter who that happens to be. It’s the closest thing to the Oscars that we have in Washington D.C. – The Kennedy Center Honors not withstanding.
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As Washington D.C. continues to ascend from provincial capital – with a nightlife defined by backroom deals in smoke-filled steak houses to beau-monde international city filled with world-class restaurants, arts, culture and a burgeoning
creative class that, I dare say, has made us hip – we must step back, take stock, and ask ourselves this, Are we losing our soul? Have we become Hollywoodized? Do we really want events on K Street, M Street, or, heaven forbid, U Street, to mimic and devolve into New York-styled Schadenfreude door jockeying refereed by spray-tanned clipboard wielding PR mavens, who stand guard empowered as Angel Gabriel to dole out admission based on face recognition, post-event press release value, money, and titular rank?
The dinner annually attracts the country’s top news organizations and news gatherers for a night of orchestrated civility that, lest us not forget, involves the distribution of scholarship money for Washington D.C. students to study journalism. This year, seventeen area students received a total of $132,000 from the White House Correspondents Association to pursue journalism degrees, which, perhaps, ironically might lead them back to the WHCAD in five years armed with Flipcams and 5,000 Twitter followers in order to package live tweets and hard-hitting 100-word posts on why Bradley Cooper went to the Bloomberg pre-party when MSNBC invited him as their dinner guest. I remain cautiously optimistic, however, that the scholarship recipients will instead be at the dinner in five years collecting awards for enterprise investigative features exposing the underbelly of inside-the-beltway styled politics.
This year, five reporters were named winners of three of journalism’s most prestigious awards. Each was honored at the dinner on May 1. Ben Feller of the Associated Press and Jake Tapper of ABC News received the Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage under deadline pressure in the print and broadcast categories, respectively. Feller was cited by the Smith award judges for his coverage of President Obama’s surprise, late-night visit to Dover Air Force Base. Tapper won for his story that revealed
former Senator Tom Daschle’s tax problems that derailed his nomination to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mark Knoller of CBS News received the Aldo Beckman award for sustained excellence in White House coverage. Knoller was cited for his body of work covering the White House for more than 35 years. Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman of the Contra Costa, California, Times received the Edgar A. Poe Award for excellence in coverage of news of national or regional significance. The duo won the award for their four-part series entitled, “Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters.”
Despite its inherently unsexy wonkiness, somehow, somewhere along the way, Hollywood has become enamored with our hometown media prom. The annual procession of actors, producers, fashionistas, and writers has infused the dinner – and now the extended weekend of programmed brunches, pre-parties, after-parties and lunches – with Hollywood glam and glitiz … and corresponding tightened security. Speaking with Edwin Chen, correspondent group president and Bloomberg News White House correspondent at the NRDC‘s “Green Scene” luncheon at the home of Joe Lockhart the Sunday following the dinner, Chen remarked, nostalgically yearning for when the dinner was less of a to-do, that “They’re making it more and more like the East Coast Oscars every year.” I agree. This was my fourth WHCAD weekend, and it was by far the most hyped, busy, and celeb-filled. A quick note on why Chen was at the NRDC Sunday luncheon – this was the first year that the WCHA has worked to reduce the carbon footprint of the event; NRDC helped
advise them on ways to accomplish that. Congrats to Chen and the WHCA for thinking green.
Events in Washington D.C. never used to command the type of megalomania reserved for LA-style blockbuster film openings and award ceremonies. Nor, did we have to deal with New York-styled name dropping and security to get “on the list” and into parties. No more. The confluence of the mutual admiration and voyeuristic fascination of Washington for Hollywood and Hollywood for Washington, mixed with the saturation of LA and NYC entertainment media, the ending of the Bush White House social scene duldrums with a double gale force blast of a more open White House and a flattening media landscape promulgated by new breed social media-enabled journalists whose voracious appetite “to win the morning” and climb the ranks of the twitterati – who count followers and retweets as badges of honor to the extent that the generation before them aimed for Pulitzers and exposés on corporate injustice or environmental accountability – has created an air of rarified exclusivity surrounding the WHCAD, cementing it as the grande dame of Pollywood soirées.
I well-up with a certain sense of pride witnessing White House media and politicians receiving Hollywood’s adoration, if only for one night; they work hard, they deserve it. And, I won’t lie, I thoroughly enjoy being part of the mutual lovefest – LA’s power set basking in proximity to Washington power brokers whilst beltway insiders grin with glee over a hand shake with Terrence Howard, a photo-op with Kim Kardashian and a brief debate (off the record) on the oil spill in the Gulf with Bill Maher. Some refer to the evening as “Nerd Prom” – it was a common hashtag in the steady stream of tweets that emanated from weekend events. Not sure what your prom was like, but if it had Rosario Dawson, Ashley Judd, Alex Baldwin, and Cynthia Nixon at it, it wasn’t nerdish. New rule: time to graduate from the term “Nerd Prom.”
Tweet note: Well played CNN White House Correspondent Ed Henry! He cajoled first lady Michelle Obama into sending her
first tweet from his iPhone. It read: “from flotus: ‘here at dinner this is officially my first Tweet. i am looking forward to some good laughs from the potus and jay'”. Great story on how it all came about here.
Alas, does it mean Washington is losing its less-flashy second-tier city soul? I’m mixed. Standing on the elegantly lit back patio of the exquisite French Ambassador’s residence at the exclusive Bloomberg / Vanity Fair after-party, I saw the best of Washington: Ambassadors, representatives, and high-profiled White House staff mixing with some of the most influential entertainment and media minds in the world. This party, arguably, is the best night in Washington all year; it is “Pollywood” at its finest. I vote for more nights like this. At the MSNBC after-party, Rachel Maddow mixed me a mean Manhattan as she traded spirited punditry for, well, spirits for pundits. Could we use more New York media personalities rolling up their sleeves and kicking back in bars of D.C.? Um, yes. But here’s the crux of my point: at the before-mentioned Bloomberg / Vanity Fair after-party, I had a lovely conversation with Sex and The City star Kristin Davis, during which I joked that they should have the world premiere of SATC2 here in Washington (how great would that be instead of these celeb-less advanced screenings they dish us?) Davis pointed me in the direction of über producer JJ Abrams, who was standing next to us, “I have no say in that whatsoever, talk to him,” Davis instructed, “but I was hoping we could do it in Marrakesh.” To which, I suggested to Abrams, “Well, the Moroccan embassy is right around the corner; it would be cheaper than flying everyone to Africa. You could just take the Acela down.” “What was the last film to have a world premiere in Washington?” Abrams asked earnestly, for a moment, perhaps, pondering the possibility of actually doing so. I thought for a moment. “Night at the Smithsonian,” I reluctantly replied. “Exactly,” he laughed. Case closed.
The heightened sense of Pollywood at WHCAD can be a sirens call of celebrity, and pomp and circumstance. We get caught up in the weekend’s pageantry and forget to consider, Does this change how those outside the beltway view us? Or, from a more practical standpoint, Will it bring more Hollywood and New York dollars and projects to the District? Babysitting kids for a night is fun; it doesn’t mean you have kids. What would I trade WHCAD for? How about more world premiere film screenings, more films shot on location in District, a nightly MSNBC-produced Rachel Maddow show in Washington, and a weekly locally-produced HBO special. Let’s make the confluence of power, media and entertainment the rule, and not the exception. It’s okay to leave the door politics, agents with convertible Lamborghinis, and PR mavens with spray-tans and attitudes behind – that’s the one thing we don’t mind having only one night a year.
Stayed tuned for our full White House Correspondents Association party wrap-up and WLTV video coverage! We follow the entire weekend of events!