'Nerd Prom' magnifies D.C.'s obsession with celebrities, but has its moments

The annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner is upon us, along with all the slams about what an exercise in self indulgence it all is. Still, there was the night that Ray Charles came to sing. 

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
Kris Jenner (l.) with Sofia Vergara (c.) and Kim Kardashian during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner headlined by late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel, April 28, 2012 in Washington.

Nerd Prom. The annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, which will be held on Saturday. It has come to symbolize official Washington’s unhealthy obsession with celebrities as well as it aloofness from the rest of the nation – even though the vast majority of D.C. journalists have never suited up for it.

The format is a familiar one: Big-name guests ranging from Henry Kissinger to Hustler mogul Larry Flynt to various supermodels; music or comedy from a prominent entertainer; well-scrutinized jokes from the president that are usually in the comic self-deprecation vein. “Nerd prom” was once used to describe the San Diego Comics Convention, but Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette.com, is credited with popularizing it for the dinner. (Washington is one of the few places in which people proudly call themselves nerds. Forty-eight percent of the area’s residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, higher than any other metropolitan region.)

Because you can read and hear plenty elsewhere about what an exercise in self-indulgence that the event has become – it’s even the subject of a critical new documentary by former Politico reporter Patrick Gavin – we thought we’d just share a couple of our most memorable WHCA stories. One dates from the late 1990s and involves actor Peter Horton, best known for playing Gary on the late ‘80s hit TV show “Thirtysomething.” After amiably answering questions from a handful of journalists about how he was enjoying the dinner, Horton turned the tables: He said he was researching an upcoming role as a Washington reporter and spent a good 20 minutes asking us about our business. We’re not sure if he ever used the advice, but it was fun to provide it.

A few years later, in 2003, one of us got to watch then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld encounter a group of foreign attendees. The Iraq War was just getting under way, and the world had not yet soured on the conflict. Rumsfeld drew so many expressions of admiration, exuberant handshakes and words of praise that the ex-Pentagon chief – who has never lacked self-confidence – looked startled to get such rock-star treatment. His reception dwarfed the one received by the next person to come along – Raquel Welch.

That same year featured a brief encounter with another high-profile member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet. Ray Charles was giving what would turn out to be one of his final performances, and we desperately wanted to hear one of America’s greatest musicians sing a few of his classics. But much of the post-dinner audience was more interested in milling around to network, indifferent to the fact that it was Ray Charles and not some nobody on stage. So we moved down to a few empty chairs – and ended up commiserating with Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, about how few people were paying attention.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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