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The Inescapable Squareness of Washington’s ‘Nerd Prom’

Never quite a party (otherwise, what was that HUD official doing at your table?) and certainly not a working dinner (even back in the ’70s there was a big-time comedian and a jokey speech from the president), the White House Correspondents Dinner has always mixed its celebratory mood with an off-kilter earnestness. Though it is now overrun by Hollywood B-listers and proudly lionized as the “nerd prom,” the annual black-tie dinner still radiates nothing so much as the press corps’ inner Rotarian. 

Through the haze of more than three decades, I still recoil at the memory of the ruffled peacock-blue men’s tuxedo shirts that were a fashion-forward accessory at the 1978 White House Correspondents Dinner. (For the record, I took my personal fashion cues from Brooks Brothers, not Sonny Bono). But then, as now, I feel affectionately bemused rather than horrified by the entire spectacle. The dinner—and the over-hyped parties that bracket it—still do serve a useful journalistic function. It is helpful to be in a setting where you get to smilingly ask elusive White House aides, “Why haven’t you answered my phone calls, emails and texts?” Sure, the tawdry nature of the celebrity gawking at the dinner is embarrassing. But I never nurtured the illusion that Washington is a rarified island of sophistication immune from “Oh my God, he’s on Celebrity Apprentice” fevers.

Still, at some point the attractions of glamour lose their allure. After a certain age (before which, I guess, the evening is convenient for flirting and much more), much of the appeal of the dinner lies in its memory-lane aspects. It is simultaneously gratifying and terrifying to see your work life pass before you—with all of it looking greyer and older in tuxedos and long gowns. These personal reveries are part of the reason why I scrupulously avoid the movie stars who grace the dinner because of their political passions, curiosity about Washington and, yes, the desperation of their publicists. (The other reason: my steadfast belief that anyone who flew in from the Coast exclusively to meet Walter Shapiro can find him without my turning into a lurker.)

In any case, veterans like me know that the glitz is a relatively recent arrival, an add-on to the essential press pack mingling and gawking. Hollywood first joined us reporters back in 1987 when the late Michael Kelly (then with the Baltimore Sun and later editor of The New Republic) in a naughty-boy stunt brought Fawn Hall to the dinner as his guest. This was the height of the Iran-contra scandal—and Hall, a comely 27-year-old blonde, had done a star turn as Oliver North’s ever-loyal White House secretary. Until Kelly changed Washington mores, an appropriate dinner guest was the assistant secretary of Commerce for legislative and intergovernmental affairs. But, so the popular theory goes, it was suddenly permissible post-Kelly to have guests with attributes beyond their mastery of the inner working of export licensing.

No, the Correspondents Dinner has never been a very edifying spectacle. But if we must view the Correspondents Dinner as signifying something—anything—in cultural history, let me suggest that it be for a little-remembered but indelibly important turning point in the coarsening of America. It occurred at the 1993 dinner, Bill Clinton’s first, when comic Elayne Boosler became the first performer in modern White House history to tell a series of sex jokes in public in front of the president. (Okay, Boosler picked the right president, but that is not my point).

This was one of the first dinners that C-Span telecast—and watching Boosler work semi-blue, even from the vantage point of nearly two decades, still feels uncomfortable. A typical Boosler riff was about some guy in a traffic dispute who shouted “whore” at her. Her response: “What a great memory.” Talking about the womanizing John Tower, who had died in a 1991 plane crash after failing to become George H.W. Bush’s secretary of Defense, Boosler suggested that he would have been perfect for keeping the peace: “He’s smoking, he’s drinking, he’s trying to get laid. He wants to make it to another Saturday night.” And finally there was her observation—which seems eerily prescient spoken in front of Bill Clinton—“There’s nothing a man wouldn’t interrupt for sex.”

Still, political humor at the dinner has almost always been Washington safe—more dependent on name-dropping (“Do I see Rahm Emanuel over there?”) than transgressive conceits. Even Stephen Colbert’s supposedly subversive routine at the 2006 dinner now seems like it came straight from American Bland-stand. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that anyone was offended by Colbert’s portrayal of the White House press corps during the Iraq War: “The president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down.” 

This year I will be voting with my feet by not attending the actual dinner, which features Jimmy Kimmel. But dressed in the tuxedo I acquired early in the Clinton years, I will be making the rounds of several parties, to catch up and gossip with old friends. Though if I somehow run into Fawn Hall, I admit that I may be tempted to ask her, “Why haven’t you returned my phone calls?”

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter  @waltershapiroPD.