White House Dinner All About Glitz

Celebrity in, politics out at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel, Saturday, April 27, 2013, in Washington.

The White House Correspondents' Association dinner – once known affectionately as the "nerd prom" – has reached critical mass. Now more than ever, it celebrates celebrity, not journalism.

This is a trend that has been building for years but it seemed to reach a new point of excess Saturday night. Among those who attended the annual formal affair were scores of stars from Hollywood, sports and other fields – people from outside Washington who far outshone the journalists for whom the dinner is supposed to be dedicated.

[READ: White House Correspondents' Dinner: This Year, Expect Fewer Celebs]

They included Fred Armisen, Jon Bon Jovi, Gerard Butler, Connie Britton, Bradley Cooper, Claire Danes, Michael Douglas, Jon Hamm, MC Hammer, Nicole Kidman, John Legend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, George Lucas, Tracy Morgan, Katy Perry, Amy Poehler, Psy, Josh Radnor, Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, Sharon Stone, Barbra Streisand, Kathleen Turner, Sofia Vergara and Rebel Wilson.

For many years, the WHCA dinner was an occasion for journalists to spend a social evening with their sources and get to know them better, and for journalism prizes to be given out. This generated a few hours of harmless fun. But the nature of the event has changed.

More than anything else, the WHCA dinner has become a showcase for glamor, fame and preening celebrities, not really a journalism dinner at all. Adding to the glittery image is the series of posh pre- and after-parties packed with celebrities and designed to get attention for the sponsors.

It's still fun, and I enjoy attending. But there are concerns. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska governor, sounded a populist note last weekend when she tweeted that the dinner had become "pathetic." She added: "The rest of America is out there working our asses off while these DC assclowns throw themselves a #nerdprom."


[READ: A Guide to the White House Correspondents' Dinner Celebrity Guest List]

Some journalists agree that the dinner presents a bad image to everyday Americans, showing reporters in tuxedoes and gowns yucking it up with the government officials that they are supposed to cover as adversaries.

The New York Times and former TV anchor Tom Brokaw decline to attend because of the dinner's celebrification. Brokaw said the dinner conveys the unfortunate message: "We're Versailles. The rest of you eat cake."

Over the years, the WHCA also greatly expanded its scholarship program, supported by proceeds from the dinner. I know this program well because I started it as a WHCA board member two decades ago. I'm proud to say it remains a very worthwhile endeavor. Defenders of the dinner say the scholarships make an important contribution to the community and help many young people get an education, and this is true.

But the scholarship money could still be raised by the WHCA even if the glitz and celebrity focus at the dinner were scaled back.

Headlining the program Saturday night at the Washington Hilton Hotel was late-night comedian Conan O'Brien, and he gave a solid performance. But President Obama's speech seemed to be more popular with the crowd.

[READ: Obama Faces Question of Tone at White House Correspondents’ Dinner]

Among Obama's best lines, which included digs at the media, his Republican adversaries, and himself, were these:

"I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be."

"I know CNN has taken some knocks lately but the fact is I admire their commitment to covering all sides of the story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate."

"David Axelrod [a former senior political adviser to Obama] now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod."

On Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and the 2016 presidential race: "The guy has not finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he's ready to be president. Kids these days!"

"I remember when BuzzFeed was just something I did in college around 2 a.m."

Obama concluded his remarks by taking a serious tone in referring to the Boston Marathon bombings, the recent explosion in West, Texas, and flooding in the Midwest. "Even when the days seem darkest, we have seen humanity shine at its brightest," the president said.

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  • Opinion: The Real Problem With the Correspondents' Dinner
  • Why Some Celebs Weren't at the Inaugural Balls
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.