On one special night of the year, the men and women in D.C. trade in their pocket protectors and ID lanyards for pocket squares and custom gowns to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner at the Washington Hilton Ballroom. As I mingled through the pre-parties last week, the conversations focused not around polling numbers, but instead on what staffers and celebrities were wearing. What has become known as the “Nerd Prom” is now the coolest event in the capital.
Founded 100 years ago, the White House Correspondents’ Association was created to guarantee the press access to the president of the United States. And, as we all know, with a great association always comes an annual dinner. This particular dinner, attended by every sitting president to date, started in 1920 by the all-male WHCA board, which barred women reporters from attending. That changed in 1962 thanks to a charge led by Helen Thomas, the first female member of the WHCA and a legend among White House reporters and staff alike. President Kennedy actually refused to attend the annual dinner until the ban on women reporters was lifted.
Maybe it’s the influence of mainstream entertainment crossing over with Hollywood as we binge watch our favorite D.C.-based shows like Scandal, VEEP, Homeland, and House of Cards. Or, perhaps it’s the intersection of fundraising in Hollywood to put politicians in Washington. Or, it’s just kind of cool in a nerdy town full of people that rarely get out of the office — much less watch TV — to feel as if they are at the Emmy Awards for one night. It really is all of that combined.
Since the Kennedys and Reagans, we’ve seen a crossover of Hollywood glamour at otherwise stale Washington events. And, after Barbra Streisand’s campaigning for a little-known Arkansas governor, and later, Oprah stumping for Obama, celebrity involvement in politics has just gotten bigger despite the backlash for being too commercial. I used to think that as well, but maybe it's been a positive cross section. Because of those A-listers and celebrity competitions among the tables, a whole new generation and viewing audience that may not be interested in politics are now paying attention to those that cover Washington — or at least what they are wearing/renting for the night. The members of the correspondents association are the government watchdogs and those that put themselves in harm’s way every day, whether in a war zone or the White House press briefing room; they are the ones who guarantee we have the information we need to be accountable. The White House Correspondents’ Association does not only guarantee access for correspondents to the White House but also to the world to know what’s going on inside.
If these folks are nerds, then I don’t want to be cool.
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