A Writer Writes —
Breaking Bread with Lindsay Lohan and Obama
by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)
It was Lindsay Lohan’s attendance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw drew the line.
Not at Ozzy Osbourne, Paula Jones, Larry Flint, Donald Trump or, Lord have mercy on us, Kim Kardashian.
“The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan. She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break,” Brokaw said after the 2013 dinner. “There was more dignity at my daughter’s junior prom than there is [at] what I’m seeing on C-SPAN there.”
That may be an unfair comparison. Junior proms set a rather high bar.
But cut Lindsay some slack. She may have been better behaved than the room full of liquored-up hacks.
Her host, Greta van Susteren, who spins right-wing fables for Fox News, said: “The table was flooded with people who wanted to meet Kim and Kris [Jenner] and Lindsay. All three were extremely gracious to people. . . People wanted picture after picture. They were all gracious. The evening went off beautifully.”
This is what Washington Post reporter Roxanne Roberts, who called the annual dinner a Bacchanal, wrote: “Guests mobbed her [Lohan’s] dinner table, pointing and critiquing just feet away, as if the clearly rattled actress were an exotic zoo oddity.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) was established in 1914 and tasked with the promoting the interests of reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House. The first dinner in 1921 was attended by about 50 guests. Although the WHCA accepted women members over the years, women journalist were excluded from the party until the early 1960s when President Kennedy refused to attend until the ban was lifted.
The dinner was an intimate, convivial affair at which the booze probably flowed freely — prohibition be damned.
Guests in the 1920s and 1930s enjoyed singing between courses, movies and increasingly extravagant variety shows featuring well-known entertainers. “In later years the parade of celebrity performers became even more impressive as the likes of Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand appeared onstage. Not until comedian Mark Russell headlined in 1983, however, did stand-up acts by leading comics selected each year replace the star-studded cabaret.”
But the less than golden age of celebrity suck-up and the parade of bizarre and off-the-wall guests didn’t start until 1988, when a Baltimore Sun reporter invited Fawn Hall, secretary to Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair, who confessed to shredding a large number of documents which presumably incriminated North.
(History’s moving finger writes and having writ, moves on. Wasn’t Oliver half of an early movie comedy team? Weren’t our psychology classes held on the third floor of Fawn Hall?)
Hall’s presence caused a stir at the dinner. It didn’t hurt that she was an attractive woman. And it brought quite a bit of attention to the Baltimore Sun, a good regional newspaper little known outside of the city.
That opened the flood gates: The next year the same Sun reporter, Michael Kelly, invited Donna Rice, the Miami model who was photographed in 1987 sitting on Sen. Gary Hart’s lap on the pleasure craft, Monkey Business, during Hart’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The photograph sank Hart’s candidacy.[Kelly was killed in Iraq in 2003 while covering the war when he was an editor for The Atlantic magazine and a columnist for the Washington Post.]
In 1990 it was Marla Maples, Donald Trump’s then-mistress and tabloid obsession. Respected White House media figures shoved each other “to get a picture with the woman whose only claim to fame was sleeping with The Donald,” the Washington Post reported.
“In 1998, the conservative magazine Insight invited Paula Jones with the intention of embarrassing President Bill Clinton — operating under the theory that any publicity is good publicity. With Maples, any pretense that this dinner was about the Washington press corps left the building. Now it was just about celebrities: the bigger, the better. In 2002, Ozzy Osbourne, rocker-turned-reality-star, got a shout-out from President Bush and a 30-second ovation from the crowd when he jumped on a chair to soak in the applause,” according to the story.
For this year’s event held recently, all 260 tables in the Washington Hilton ballroom, 2,600 seats in all, were sold to media companies at $3,000 per table.
The “VIP” guests included actor Bradley Cooper and director Christopher Nolan (invited by Time); ice skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir (NBC Universal); actresses Lucy Liu, Connie Britton and Constance Zimmer (The Hill); Madeleine Albright, who was a real Secretary of State, and Téa Leoni, who plays a Secretary of State on television(CBS News).
Fox News invited Brody Jenner, reality star Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump, Martha Stewart — who needs no further introduction, actresses Kelly Rutherford and Alanna Masterson, and Billie Jean King.
USA Today, which fancies itself a serious newspaper, apparently couldn’t identify actual newsmakers worthy of an invitation, invited actresses Jane Seymour, Alfre Woodard, Wendy Mclendon Covey, Naya Rivera, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Troian Bellisario.
This is only a partial list, but it does seem to lack the star-power of recent years when George Clooney showed up to be fussed, fawned and drooled over.
If you weren’t notorious or well connected enough to garner an invitation, CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN and Fox News provided wall-to-wall coverage, including of the infamous red carpet, largely ignoring actual breaking news such as the tragic earthquake in Nepal.
You could also have checked the Washington Post web page for its “complete coverage,” including a transcript of President Obama’s remarks; a break-out of his funniest lines (written by a team of writers hired for the occasion); photos from the red carpet, including of model Hannah Davis, who displayed a lot of leg, and Tamron Hall, a national correspondent with NBC, who displayed a surprising amount of cleavage; and reports about the exclusive, invitation-only “after parties.”
McGraw-Hill, where I was employed when it owned Business Week whose reporters covered the White House and were members of the WHCA, always bought several tables with the seats mostly taken by BW reporters and top company officials who could then boast about breathing the same air as the President, as well as Fawn Hall and Paula Jones, for all I know.
It was my understanding that the BW reporters competed to invite high-profile guests, and the reporters with the most exalted guests sat with the highest ranking company official. I imagine most senior government officials were flooded with a number of invitations and weighed the prestige value of the publication before accepting. In other words, if I invited someone who had a choice between attending with me, who worked for relatively obscure publication, and someone from Business Week, guess whose invitation would have been accepted?
One or two tables were made available to other McGraw publications (in the days when McGraw-Hill owned more publications that covered Washington news). My division usually bought a table with room for any five reporters who were interested in attending, and their guests. The idea was to invite someone who had been a good news source during the year.
I went once. I rented a tuxedo and cleaned up nicely. My guest was a career employee at the State Department. It wasn’t an opportunity mid-level career State Department officials often had, and he was grateful for the invitation.
But I was increasingly bothered by the atmospherics of the event, the increasing Hollywoodization; the ranks of “celebrity” invitees; the competition for the best guest.
“The dinner has always offered ‘optics’ that would shock a journalistic puritan,” Paul Fahri wrote in the Post. “To wit: a ballroom full of Washington media types, advertisers and a few celebrities schmoozing with the same government officials, including the President, that the media types are supposed to be holding to account. Most news organizations dismiss the perception question and party on.”
I don’t think spending a night partying with someone you cover on a daily basis would affect your coverage. Most journalists are better than that.
But something about the dinner never sat right with me.
By the way if you were watching at home while scarfing down pepperoni pizza — and you really need to get out more — this was the dinner menu: Terrine of jumbo crab meat, Jicama mango, pepitas and baby oak salad, smoked paprika rubbed filet, seared Alaskan halibut and Tapas of assorted deserts.
Incidentally, Pepitas are one of the few things I’m allergic to. Good way to screw up a nice salad.
Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.