WH Correspondents Dinner Planners Brush Off Criticism

By: Joe Strupp

Organizers of the White House Correspondents Association dinner brushed off the mix of criticism that has followed this year’s annual event, ranging from critiques of comedian Stephen Colbert to the increasingly “glitzy” character of the dinner, now attended by many “A-” and “B-” list celebrities.

But at least one of the key planners, incoming WHCA president Steve Scully, said organizers have to make sure the event does not become “too Hollywood” as the number of celebrities each year grows.

“We don’t want it to become an Oscar night,” he said.

Outgoing WHCA president Mark Smith responded to critics who said Colbert was too unfunny, or too biting, saying his job at the end of the evening is the hardest to do.

“There will always be people who love the comedian or hate the comedian, who love what the president did or hate what the president did,” he told E&P Tuesday. “I’ve gotten a few e-mails from people who thought I hired Colbert to do a hit job on the president, and that is not the case.”

The Saturday night event, which offered a guest list ranging from George Clooney to Valerie Plame, included President Bush trading remarks with impersonator Steve Bridges. Both Bridges and Colbert took the opportunity to hit Bush with digs at his low approval rating, Iraq war problems, and the Dick Cheney shooting.

Assessments of the dinner have included theories that more mainstream coverage of Colbert did not occur because he criticized the press, that Colbert was simply unfunny or that he was too harsh for the audience. “Bush hit such a home run with Steve Bridges that he got all of the coverage,” said Scully, who also is political editor of C-SPAN. “I think that exceeded expectations. There was no right-wing conspiracy or left-wing conspiracy.”

Scully said he and Smith did not know that the impersonator would appear until just before it happened. Although the president’s staff had asked that a second podium be put in place, he said nothing was known until Bush shared his script with Smith during dinner. “We were speculating that maybe Cheney would show up or Bush 1 would show up,” Scully said. “Even the White House staff didn’t know.”

This year’s dinner, which topped 2,700 guests, appeared to have more celebrities than ever, including the likes of Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger, rapper Ludacris, Morgan Fairchild, and American Idol cast-off Ace Young, as well as George Clooney, Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson. Under the dinner’s rules, each had to be a guest of a WHCA member to get in. “It has attracted more celebrities than in the past,” Smith said when asked if too many big names were turning the Washington event into a Hollywood-type affair. “I’m delighted that members bring who they choose to bring.”

Scully admitted that the dinner could become too Hollywood if planners do not stick to its initial purpose: thanking the White House staff and cultivating source relationships. “We have to make sure that is the focus,” he said about the 92-year-old event. “You can overextend it, everyone tries to get the ‘wow’ guest. But I think it enhances the night.”

Smith did not believe that the growing attention would change any of the procedures for the dinner, such as the press limitations that allow only the White House press pool to cover the event without a ticket. “There is a limit to the number of people we can have in the room,” Smith said. “It is really a space consideration.”

Some critics have said that Bush should not be involved in the dinner because it wrongly brings the president and the press together in a social setting.

“The American people can see right through if there is too much coziness,” Scully said in response. “You are not going to write a more favorable story because you have a glass of wine with somebody at the dinner. There is still a healthy adversary and that should be.”

Smith, who also is an Associated Press White House reporter, saw no plans to keep the president away in the future. When asked what some of the best elements of the dinner were, Smith said the fact that people listened. “In previous years, we had this problem where people yack through the whole thing,” he said.

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