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WASHINGTON — There were parties and after-parties. After a two-year pandemic-enforced hiatus, the White House Correspondents Association gala returned to the Washington Hilton on Saturday. An estimated 2,000 were in attendance, including celebrity couple Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson. Paparazzi hid in the hotel’s shrubbery, waiting for them to arrive.
Martha Stewart was there, and so were actresses Miranda Kerr, Diane Lane and Drew Barrymore. Comedians Chris Tucker and Billy Eichner. Philanthropist Melinda Gates. Rapper Fat Joe. JC Chasez of NSYNC fame. Actor Michael Keaton. And of course many federal lawmakers and top government officials, including President Biden.
Whether journalists should party with politicos and celebs is, to be sure, a thoroughly legitimate concern, and one that the gala’s critics have frequently expressed. That concern was put aside as invitations to pre-parties and post-parties, pre-dinner brunches and post-after-party brunches — as well as the dinner itself — became objects of intense desire in a Washington that has had little cause for celebration in the last two years.
“I’m really excited to be here with the only group of people with a lower approval rating than I have,” Biden told his black-tie audience. White House press secretary Jen Psaki had tamped down expectations for his speech, but someone in the West Wing knows how to write a joke.
“We had a horrible plague, followed by two years of COVID,” Biden said of his predecessor, as is his custom declining to mention Donald Trump by name. Turning more serious, he said, "American democracy is not a reality show.”
He is the first president to attend the WHCA gala since his former boss, Barack Obama. The first president to attend was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. “I had just been elected to the United States Senate,” Biden joked, alluding to concerns about his own age (he is 79). “I remember telling him, ‘Cal, just be yourself. Get up there and speak from the heart. You're going to be great, kid. You're going to do it well.’”
Another gala last month, a dinner at the Gridiron Club, caused a spate of positive coronavirus cases among Washington elites, but none of the cases seemed to become serious. Some wondered if it was irresponsible to hold an even bigger party, with people traveling from New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. After all, the pandemic is not over. Hundreds of people are still dying every day as the country inches toward 1 million total deaths.
Acknowledging this uncomfortable reality, host Trevor Noah opened his own monologue by declaring himself honored to be at “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event.”
“No, for real, people,” Noah continued as the audience laughed. “What are we doing here? Let’s be honest. What are we doing? Like, did none of you learn anything from the Gridiron dinner? Nothing! Like, do you read any of your own newspapers? … You guys spent the last two years telling everyone the importance of wearing masks and avoiding large, indoor gatherings. Then the second someone offers you a free dinner, you all turn into Joe Rogan.”
Noah was the first comedian to host the event since Michelle Wolf’s controversial 2018 performance, during which some cringed at the caustic jokes targeting Trump administration officials like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The following year, historian Ron Chernow delivered sober remarks for a sober time. For two years during the pandemic, many Washington gatherings were relegated to backyards, with plastic cups of beer.
That started to change this spring, even as the new BA.2 subvariant of the coronavirus started spreading in the Northeast. It appears to be more transmissible than previous strains, but many have argued that the availability of vaccines and treatments, as well as the efficacy of one-way masking, means it is a time to return to normal.
In fact, the vast majority of Americans have some form of immunity — either from previous infection, vaccination or both. Few experts think that means all cautions should be dispensed with, but just as few are willing to maintain an acute state of emergency.
The dinner itself had a testing and vaccination requirement, but the parties held before and after the WHCA dinner were another matter. Guests packed into the graceful townhouse of NBC News journalist Jonathan Allen, enjoying high-end bourbon and — as the night drew to its conclusion —setting rather eagerly upon Domino’s pizzas. (A bottle of Ukrainian horseradish vodka brought by this reporter went unopened.)
Several events were held at the REACH, an addition to the Kennedy Center. At a Friday night party on the Georgetown waterfront thrown by United Talent Agency, the high-powered Hollywood firm, CNN’s Brian Stelter mixed with Lisa "Kennedy" Montgomery, the former MTV veejay who now hosts a Fox Business talk show. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was there, trailed by earpiece-wearing security officers.
The desire to mask up was notably low, at least on Saturday night. Though Psaki had said Biden would wear a mask, neither he nor the first lady did.
Citing his own concerns, Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week he would not be attending the dinner. “That should have been a sign,” Noah joked, noting that attendance amounted to siding in matters of public health with Davidson, the “Saturday Night Live” comedian. Noah also mentioned that Psaki had recently caught the coronavirus “for, like, the 10th time.”
There were some serious moments.
The correspondents’ association presented a new prize in honor of Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, Black women who covered the White House at a time when the press corps consisted almost entirely of white men. And it was difficult not to think of the journalists who have died in the last two months while covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If nothing else, the weekend in Washington was evidence of how sorely human connection has been lacking for the last two years and how the serendipity of gathering adds a richness to Zoom call can replicate. A criminal justice activist, Kardashian found a few moments to talk with White House chief of staff Ron Klain about commutations.
“We have reached the singularity,” conservative attorney George Conway wrote in a tweet that included a picture of him with progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar. (Both were at the Yahoo News table.)
After the event, the WHCA crowd spilled out, betuxed and bedecked, toward a fleet of black SUVs. The night was cool and inviting, holding the possibility of a few more carefree hours before returning to the less-than-carefree realities of 2022.