The 101st annual White House Correspondents Association dinner was held at the Washington Hilton on Saturday night and featured the usual send-ups of the D.C. political class along with celebrities dripping in diamonds and swathed in couture. But there were some surreal, unscripted moments amid the circus better known as “Nerd Prom.”
One of the most popular guests proved to be actress and Emmy Award-winning producer Laverne Cox. She attended for the first time as a guest of the Washington Blade and the event was held one night after Bruce Jenner’s coming out interview on ABC. Cox was in demand, with reporters swamping her with questions about Jenner. Cox told the Blade that she spoke to Jenner by phone after his interview aired and praised Dianne Sawyer’s handling of the questioning. “I think ABC handled it beautifully,” Cox said.
As she made her way through the rain and into the jam-packed Hilton, a stylist scurried to arrange her fabulous Ines Di Santo gown, as photographers shouted and jockeyed for position. I was happy to help the “Orange is the New Black” star by carrying her purse and finally escorting her through the gauntlet. As chaotic as the red carpet paparazzi scene was, things were about to get surreal.
We walked through security and Cox was stopped by Katie Couric. We were introduced and then Couric said she wanted to introduce us to her “date.” Cox and I were stunned to see Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia standing there with his hand outstretched to greet us. This was just three days before Scalia — a harsh critic of LGBT rights — was to consider arguments in the marriage cases pending before the court. He smiled and shook our hands and there was some brief and awkward chitchat before he shuffled off with Katie.
I thought we should have been ready with a quip or pointed remark about marriage. Then again, perhaps it was best to leave it alone.
As we made our way to the ballroom, there were celebrities galore: Jane Fonda, Martha Stewart, Bradley Cooper, Gabourey Sidibe. Martin O’Malley, the butt of two stinging jokes that night, wandered around like he was waiting to be recognized. Fonda, 77, turned heads in a fitted black dress that one tabloid likened to her Barbarella look from 50 years ago. There were models, actors, CEOs, athletes and, oh yeah, White House correspondents, including the Blade’s own Chris Johnson. Among the friendlier famous faces: Tracee Ellis Ross from ABC’s “Blackish”; Julie Bowen and Jesse Tyler Ferguson from “Modern Family”; and NBC’s Tamron Hall, who, at age 44, appears to be drinking from the Fountain of Youth.
President Obama stole the show as always. He made two gay jokes. Referencing Rick Santorum’s comment that he would not attend a same-sex wedding, Obama said, “Gays and lesbians across the country responded, ‘That’s not going to be a problem.’”
And speaking about his close relationship with Vice President Biden, Obama quipped, “I tease Joe sometimes, but he has been at my side for seven years, I love that man. He’s not just a great vice president, he is a great friend. We’ve gotten so close in some places in Indiana, they won’t serve us pizza anymore.”
Amid the silliness, there were toasts to journalists who were killed while covering stories and a pledge from Obama to bring home Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, wrongfully jailed in Iran on unspecified charges. Many of those in attendance wore “Free Jason” pins. And despite all the criticism of the dinner as out-of-touch and an inappropriate conflict of interest, there is something moving about taking a night to celebrate the profession of journalism and its critical role in America’s democracy. While some surely attend to party and snap selfies with celebs, those of us at the Blade do not take it for granted. It wasn’t long ago that we were summarily tossed out of the White House briefing room and our credentials cancelled. Access to the highest levers of power is critical to informing the public about what our government is doing in our name. So we were grateful and honored to be there, even if we took selfies with Laverne.