By: Joe Strupp
Like any good president-elect, Ann Compton is already looking ahead. The veteran ABC News reporter, and incoming president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, knows that her future term will have a range of issues, from the renovated White House press digs to the ongoing push for more access to the president.
But her most public role will likely be organizing next year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Just day’s after this year’s event drew mixed reactions due to entertainer Rich Little’s poor performance, and President George Bush’s decision not to offer a lengthy address, Compton knows whatever plans she makes for next year will likely get even more scrutiny.
“I have lots of things I am thinking of,” Compton said about the entertainment late Tuesday. “Whatever it will be, it will be a choice to make it a great evening. It won’t be to please a presidential staff, it will not be to be politically correct.”
The dinners have received more scrutiny each year as the entertainers draw more interest, and the guest list grows more Hollywood. Last year’s choice of Stephen Colbert raised eyebrows after he offered a stinging routing hitting both Bush and the press. When Little was chosen this year by outgoing WHCA President Steve Scully, some criticized the choice as too safe, then later as a poor performance.
Compton agreed that the entertainment had gotten much more interest in recent years, perhaps too much. She pointed to the 1945 dinner, which included one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s last public appearances and had a list of entertainers that include the NBC radio orchestra.
“We are at a much different place,” she said. “There is no entertainment that is perfect. There were people who didn’t like Ray Charles, who thought Aretha Franklin went on too long. Some entertainers work, some don’t.”
Noting that the date has already been set, April 26, 2008, Compton said she had already approached one entertainer she has in mind, declining to name the person. She acknowledged that Little may not have gone over well, but said the timing of the dinner, just six days after the Virginia Tech shooting, definitely had an impact.
“Think of the timing,” Compton said, noting that in past years the dinner had taken place within a week or so of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco disaster and the Columbine shooting. “This has been a bad week for a lot of years.”
She also said that the attention given to the guest list and entertainers too often overshadows the real purpose of the dinner, which is to acknowledge award-winners, present scholarships, and give the press and the president and evening of friendly appreciation. “What do people come to this for? They don’t come for the scholarships, they don’t come for the awards, they come to see and be seen,” she said. “Hollywood wishes they were in politics, politicians wish they were in Hollywood.”
Still, Compton stresses that the dinner remains a positive event for those involved, discounting the growing complaints that it is some how unethical for the press and the politicians to dine together. “It is way overdone,” she said of such charges. “As if any of us at the [press] gaggle this morning didn’t hit [deputy presidential press secretary] Dana [Perino] with everything we’ve got.”