Before the Prom

So everyone who’s anyone in Washington got all dressed up Saturday night and went to the Prom. Having been once now, we can see why conventional wisdom among the capital’s cool set is: Do everything you can go to the White House Correspondents Association dinner once, and then do everything you can to never go again. It should be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with an emphasis on the once.

The dinner was one of the most boisterous, craziest, and rudest extravaganzas we’ve seen in quite a while. As one guest said to us, “This is the one event of the year where reporters just say ‘fuck it,’ I’m going to get wasted tonight because everyone else will be too.”

One sometimes forgets that the frat boys of Animal House could never hope to measure up against the copious consumption of media folks when they gather together in herds. The prom this weekend was no exception.

While the WHCA dinner is the third of D.C.’s big Winter press dinners, after the Gridiron and the RadioTV dinner, there are some big differences: The WHCA dinner is higher profile, more crowded, more racuous, and the women’s dresses are fancier and more colorful.

So let’s begin at the beginning and take you through the evening.

(A very special thanks to Chuck “Hot Stuff” Todd for his gracious invitation to be Hotline’s date. In his honor, for today only, we’re renaming the blog “HotbowlDC.”)

As Saturday evening in Washington dawned (can an evening “dawn?), the heavy rain of earlier in the day lightened to a gentle and occasional misting but left the city soaked in a healthy dose of the humidity that only a city built on a swamp can feel.

North of Dupont Circle, the Washington Hilton–host to all such events and the site of Hinckley’s 1981 encounter with President Reagan–was beset by lines of Secret Service vehicles, dark Chevy Suburbans, Lincoln Town Cars, and taxis disgorging guests decked out for the biggest event of the year in the capital.

The red carpet entrance downstairs, televised live on C-SPAN, in the Hilton allowed “regular” people to gaze in wonder at the arriving guests inside while security teams and drivers jockeyed for room amid the arriving VIPs. (We always wonder at events like this: Do the two agents assigned to Nancy Pelosi or Paul Wolfowitz feel inferior to the vast entourages of POTUS and VPOTUS?)

The drone of motorcycles and wail of sirens announced the most important guests, while a helicopter hovered overhead watching the hotel and the motorcade route.

Set up just inside the entrance was the line of photographes and cameras along the red carpet looking for the celebrities. The ego-boost of the night belonged to a friend who, along with his date, reached the end of the carpet and heard one photog turn to another: “Are they anyone?” “Nope, they’re nobodies.”

Once inside, past the red carpet and the rope line, dinner guests were presented with a smorgasbord of pre-parties, all mostly lacking in any delectable snacks.

Downstairs in the hotel–outside the preparties for organizations like Reuters, Time/CNN/People, Newsweek–Matt Drudge in his signature hat posed for photos as arriving Marine Band musicians in full dress swirled around him.

Back upstairs and outside, the vast poolside pre-party for Atlantic Media (including National Journal and Hotline among other publications) provided the focus for many guests, while nearby others spilled out onto the pooldeck from the function room receptions of ABCNews, Bloomberg, and National Review. At the Bloomberg event, guests angled for a last-minute invite to the hot post-party, while at ABC’s reception Donovan McNabb and Stephen Colbert attracted steady streams of well-wishers and gawkers.

Throughout the numerous preparties, roving paparazzi snapped celebrities while diners hurried to locate their hosts, get their dinner tickets, and get drunk. The alcohol flowed freely–both in the sense that no one had to pay for drinks and in the sense and people were having many of them.

After a healthy two hours of prepartying, the hotel staff ranged through the pre-parties banging gongs and flicking the lights sending the huddled mass of tuxedos and fancy dresses surging towards far too few magnetometers set up at the ballroom’s entrance downstairs. In a brilliant purple dress, NBC’s Norah O’Donnell slid through the magnetometer line just ahead of Reuters Media President Chris Ahearn. Nearby AFP’s Olivier Knox chatted with former White House colleague John King as the CNN contingent edged ever closer to the front of the line and the harried and humorless uniformed Secret Service officers.

Once through the Secret Service phalanx, guests picked their way through the blue-tinged ballroom crowded with 261 tables. While most tables sat blank, nametags of varying quality denoted those news organizations organized enough to assign seats, and some like CNN even had trinkets waiting on the plates. When asked, D.C. Bureau Chief David Bohrman played coy about the red-ribbon wrapped boxes: “They’re just, um, gifts,” he smiled.

Next up the dinner.