Juleanna Glover is one of the best-known conveners at the nexus of social and political Washington. As such, she’s been a familiar figure at the events around the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which during her years in Washington has evolved from a dinner to a weeklong cavalcade of networking, influence and moneymaking leavened by the occasional toast to a free press.
But this year, with the annual festivities back to their familiar frenetic pace, amid a degree of excitement beyond anything in years, Glover is experiencing a distinctly unfamiliar feeling: dread.
It has nothing to do with the virus or the war in Ukraine. Over the last few months, Glover has actually thrown book parties, hosted events and otherwise gathered with the Washington village. Instead, it’s about politics itself.
After a career spent bringing together ideologically mixed crowds on behalf of high-profile corporate clients, the Republican staffer turned PR pro worries that Washington is too eager to get back to bipartisan socializing as usual — and, in its excitement at emerging from social lockdown, is ignoring what she sees as the lingering rot at the heart of democracy. “It’s not still broken,” she says. “It’s more broken.”
“This is the first time this has happened in the post-Trump era, where it really is a moral question before the country,” Glover says of the dinner and the attendant corporate-sponsored parties, where for years reporters and advertisers have mingled with bigwigs from across the political spectrum. “The question is, can Washington normalize? In my brain and body it’s, ‘I hope not,’ because if so, then we’re morally benumbed. On a weekend dedicated to freedom of the press, is it okay to raise a glass and toast with a seditionist?”
Among Washingtonians whose business involves working across party lines, Glover is unusual in her willingness to attach her name to the feelings. But I heard similar sentiments from a number of people this week as I went about the rituals of checking party schedules and hunting down errant cuff links, chores that were interrupted for two years of pandemic cancellations, and that had previously been diminished by three years of relatively restrained party planning as media companies eschewed Trump’s D.C.
Now, all of a sudden, the status quo ante is back. And though it’s the embrace of a pre-Covid normal that gets the attention — witness how the revived Gridiron dinner turned into a superspreader event, and the hubbub about whether President Joe Biden’s scheduled appearance puts him at risk — it’s the return of the pre-2016 version of Washington, the party-hopping town of media-elite chumminess, that is stirring up complicated emotions: Given what’s happened since, is it okay to return to the old partisanship-stops-when-the-drinking-starts, everyone-can-come model?
Judging from the social calendar of the weekend, a much more sizable population of people thinks the answer is: Hell, yes!
This year’s festivities look to be the most elaborate since the Obama years. Familiar stations of the cross, like the insider-heavy annual garden brunch at the former Katharine Graham home in Georgetown, will pick up where they left off in 2019. Other classics from the pre-Trump era are coming back to life after a longer break. After Trump’s election, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg pulled out of the exclusive after-party they traditionally threw at the French ambassador’s residence. This year, the embassy soiree is back, now under the aegis of Paramount.
And there are also new events on the calendar: A get-together for the Semafor news organization being launched by former Bloomberg News chief Justin Smith and former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, a gathering in the glitzy 16th Street headquarters of the Motion Picture Association, a space that opened up shortly before the pandemic.
Ironically, the tighter caps on attendance in the name of pandemic safety have increased the amount of jockeying for access to events like the one at MPA, which is known for drawing Hollywood celebs to D.C. “We’ve gotten so many unsolicited RSVPs from people who weren’t invited,” says Emily Lenzner, the association’s public affairs chief. “I imagine the same is happening at the other parties. And I’m thinking, ‘How can you physically hit all these parties?’”
Of course, pretending to hate the WHCA falderal is as much a Beltway tradition as pretending to hate Washington itself. But what’s notable about the scrambled state of the capital in 2022 is the way the long-standing outsider critique — that there’s something unseemly about powerful people and journalistic watchdogs all cavorting in a morally neutral environment, with corporate sponsors footing the bill — dovetails with the worries of a consummate insider like Glover.
Displays of insiderism will also be catnip for the right-wing media, where the working assumption is the media elite pulls punches on behalf of their Democratic pals, not merely on behalf of business-as-usual.
The return of the dinner’s traditional program itself is a kind of ideological Rorschach test.
Consider the recent history. For years, the dinner featured a comedian. Then, in 2018, the WHCA apologized after comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a routine whose broadsides against then-White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders had sparked a conservative backlash. The association subsequently dispensed with the notion of an after-dinner comedian at all, instead hiring Alexander Hamilton author Ron Chernow to give remarks as a historian. But now, at the first dinner of the Biden administration, the yuks are back, with “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah set to present a monologue — and Jen Psaki, the current occupant of Sanders’ old job, is about to literally become an employee of the company hosting one of the marquee post-banquet parties, NBCUniversal. (Psaki will also be “in conversation” with Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg as dinner-hour entertainment the previous night at the home of chair emeritus and minority owner David Bradley, co-hosted by majority owner Laurene Powell Jobs.)
WHCA president Steve Portnoy declined to respond to multiple requests for comment about whether Noah had been given any guidelines for what his act should or shouldn’t include.
Does the revival of comedy mean the WHCA no longer fears an off-the-rail standup act because they assume a star comedian will go easy on the Democrats and the soon-to-be fellow TV host who serves as their spokesperson? Or does it mean that the association preemptively defanged its last dinner to appease team Trump but doesn’t feel compelled to do that on behalf of Biden? Your answer probably depends on your politics.
It could be, though, that the very fact of bipartisan bread-breaking has itself become, paradoxically, partisan.
Organizations sponsoring events this weekend say they’ve been broad in their lists of invites — but the RSVPs have leaned blue. The same phenomenon was on display at the Gridiron dinner earlier this spring. Usually a festival of cross-aisle bonhomie, the dinner only featured two Republican governors (both vocally anti-Trump) and two GOP senators (one of them retiring). Of the media outlets that have announced who their guests will be, few have named prominent conservatives: ABC will bring Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as well as Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who did not join in Republican objections to the 2020 election results. WHCA dinner guest lists used to have a performance-art element to them, a way to get attention or punk the current administration by bringing high profile critics, like the fateful appearance of Donald Trump himself in 2011.
Glover, for the record, says she’ll socialize this weekend: She’s planning a low-key get-together of her own, at the same time as the big dinner, and set to include human rights activists from Rwanda, Syria and Ukraine. “I’ll go out to things, yes,” she says. “But will I be socializing with deniers? I don’t think so.”
Instead, she offers a solution incorporating the sponsored backdrops where guests typically pose for pictures while walking into A-list parties: “Instead of those absurd step and repeat set ups at the entrance of every event, they should just have a single microphone linked to a video recorder,” she says. “Everyone should just stop and repeat that Biden is a duly elected president in front of a live mic. If you can’t do that, then GTFO. This weekend is about celebrating a free press that at its aspirational best underpins our shared truths and seditionist lies that threaten the principle of the peaceful transfer of power are incompatible to that.”
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