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White House Correspondents Reclaim Their Weekend Without President Trump

Variety logo Variety 4/29/2017 Ted Johnson
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WASHINGTON — President Trump is skipping this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, counter programming on Saturday evening with is own rally in Harrisburg, Penn. Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, Time, and People have canceled their parties after years of tradition. Other parties have scaled back into smaller spaces.

This annual weekend grew, grew, and grew during President Barack Obama’s administration, as Hollywood figures flocked to mingle with the media and political elite, and moguls endured long lines and crowds to get into a tightly packed ballroom for the one-of-its-kind event. Corporate sponsors, like Netflix and Google, held lavish mega-parties tied to the weekend. Some entertainment figures, lured to the weekend by their handlers, confessed to not quite understanding what it was about.

This year, the tone is different and the Hollywood presence is much less, but it’s hardly a shut out.

At a Georgetown party held by UTA, which represents on-air talent like Jake Tapper and Don Lemon, some journalists marveled at how they could have extended conversations without eyes naturally shifting to who next walks in the room.  One of the few Hollywood celebrities there was Billy Bob Thornton, who performed at a Mother Nature Network event earlier in the evening at the Hamilton with the Boxmasters and The Rolling Stones’ Chuck Leavell. The UTA party was hosted by Jay Sures and Dan Abrams, and among the other news figures at the event were Jim Acosta, Carl Bernstein, and Cenk Uygur, along with politicos like Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and executives Sam Feist and Chris Licht.

Down the street, the Creative Coalition held its annual dinner to celebrate the arts, with guests such as Tim Daly and Alyssa Milano. There is a bit more urgency this year, as Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

RealClearPolitics billed its event as “A Toast to the First Amendment,” which was fitting not just for journalistic statement, but the venue: The National Restaurant Association offices.

On Saturday, Samantha Bee’s taping of her TBS show at the DAR Constitution Hall is one of the hottest tickets of the weekend. Even more exclusive is the after-party, where Elvis Costello is scheduled to perform.

“There is a different vibe,” said Matt Walsh, who split his time between D.C. and Los Angeles when “Veep” shot in Maryland. “I don’t know how to describe it yet, but it does feel a little different.”

He and his wife, Morgan, said they were on Capitol Hill to advocate for arts funding, and planned to go to the taping of Bee’s show. But they weren’t going to go to the dinner.

David Letterman was spotted on Capitol Hill on Friday with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) where they met activists participating in a climate change march on Saturday. At one point, Franken pulled his beard.

One of the weekend’s traditions continued this year — an annual Georgetown garden brunch co-hosted by Tammy Haddad and Hilary Rosen. The event was in a slightly smaller home this year, and there was a definite emphasis on press freedom. Buttons reading “Democracy Hustles Harder,” from the Democracy Fund, were handed out.

“You, the press, you guys are on the front now,” Ian Kahn, who plays George Washington on the AMC series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”

Among those present were Bret Baier, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, Rep, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning and Greta Van Susteren. Few if any Trump administration officials were spotted at the bunch and other events, as the White House staff is skipping the dinner in solidarity. One of the few to show at a fete was Defense Secretary James Mattis, who attended an event at the home of David and Katherine Bradley. Bradley is the owner of Atlantic Media.

The dinner itself on Saturday, which has sold out, will be different without Trump and the celebrity swarm.

Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents Association, has said that despite Trump’s decision to skip the dinner, that they will be “celebrating the First Amendment.” Bernstein and Bob Woodward are scheduled to speak, and Hasan Minhaj of “The Daily Show” will perform.

Julie Mason, the host of a radio show on SiriusXM, says that what is happening is a return to the years of George W. Bush, when leftward-Hollywood types didn’t have the same interest in trekking to D.C. for the event.

Instead, the message of what the WHCA does — like championing press access, raising money for scholarships, and giving awards for journalistic excellence — may break through where it was a bit more difficult amid the glitter of previous years.

Just don’t count on it changing a favorite pastime — media bashing, whether from Trump, the White House, or the general public.

“I think many of us in the news biz have given up worrying about how the public perceives what we do,” said Mason, a former WHCA board member. “Loathing of the media is so ingrained, even a low-key awards dinner will be received as preening self-congratulation. After a certain point, all you can do is your job.”

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