A cheerfully inebriated political reporter is holding forth in the French ambassador’s residence about the optimal approach to celebrities. We’re in the back of the lavish Kalorama manse, where every room on the first floor seems to be a space for entertaining, the high ceilings, oriental rugs and busts of Gallic statesmen giving off a distinct Eyes Wide Shut vibe. The key to the celebrity encounter, the expansive gent explains, is not to give a shit: “When a celebrity meets you, it’s completely meaningless. They have to put up with admiring strangers all the time. So why worry about the impression you make? It’s oddly liberating, really.” As if on cue, the party’s sound system, which has been playing American standards all night, lurches into Louis Armstrong’s rendition of a discordant Old World ballad, Brecht and Weil’s lumpen-prole murder-for-hire saga, “Mack the Knife.”
Here, at the Bloomberg-Vanity Fair afterparty for this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, there is indeed an odd lightness in the air-in spite of the neofeudal ambiance, the room’s low rumble of shmoozing and one-upsmanship, and the undertone of menace that naturally accompanies any gathering of any power elite in the nation’s capital. And there is no shortage of celebrities-truly a disorienting, if not entirely liberating, state of affairs for an event that during the Bush years had to generate outsized star wattage from Morgan Fairchild or Joe Pantoliano (you know, that one Sopranos character who winds up decapitated). But tonight’s Bloomberg crowd is much closer to the confident A-list swank that organizers had been angling for.
Earlier in the evening, I had made an ill-advised feint right out of my new social adviser’s playbook, somehow convincing myself that it would be amusing to introduce myself to Amy Poehler, now of Parks and Recreation fame, with the words “I’m stalking you.” That doltish miscue was compounded, oh, a thousand-fold when I adjourned to the bar a few minutes later; yes, I was directly in line behind her, and no, when she turned around for a moment, nothing in her expression indicated any lingering belief that I’d been joking. And before that, my normally jaded wife was so overcome at the sight of Mad Men dreamboat Jon Hamm that she tossed aside her purse in eager pursuit.
So yes: disorienting but meaningless. How does one make sense, after all, of an event where you can see Ashton Kutcher directly in the path of an onrushing Donald Rumsfeld? Where Michael Bloomberg regales you with an account of sitting in on the congas at a recent fundraising concert in a Puerto Rican restaurant-and tops that off with a reminiscence of his impromptu dance performance on a Dominican Republican tarmac? Could it be that, in the age of Obama the DC-Hollywood glitzeratti -described by Ann Curry, without a note of irony, in a fundraising appeal at the Tammy Haddad brunch that kicks off the weekend’s frenetic networking, as “the most powerful people on the planet”-just aren’t taking themselves all that seriously? That they’re having actual, you know, fun?
Of course, even fun can’t be unselfconscious in a place like Washington- casual banter gets instantly translated into the register of power, confidence and strategic impression-management. To be fun is to be comfortable; and to be comfortable here is to bask in the conviction you’re on the right side of history. That’s why for all the predictable right-wing agita over Wanda Sykes’ monologue likening Rush Limbaugh to a 9/11 hijacker, the Bloomberg party’s postmortems on the night’s festivities focused more on the last joke in President Obama’s routine, where he vowed to produce his next 100 days in just 72 diurnal cycles-“and on the 73rd day I shall rest.” Yes, the president was sending up his own image as a messiah figure-but he was also courting the impression of hubris, and it’s just creepy to hear a chief executive describe himself in language cribbed from Genesis.
Still, for all the tertiary fretting, there’s also a sense that the federal government is too busy with way too many important things for standard culture-war kvetching-and that, in turn, has created some encouraging open spaces around the soul-killing rounds of VIP-spotting. The most engaging conversation of my night, for instance, was with a learned and witty UK economist-“for my sins, I try to teach this discipline to the young,” he explained. We lamented the lack of any systemic approach to health care reform in America, the decline of the 19th century “political economy”-to the detriment of latter-day economics and politics alike-and compared the limitations of the two-party system in America and Britain. It was only when he was fetched away by his brooding-hunk son that my wife informed me that he was the father of Ed Westwick, of “Gossip Girl” fame.
Likewise, many hours earlier at the National Journal dinner reception, I was happily reminded of why people care about what kinds of policy actually gets made beneath the froth of federal PR initiatives and the droning media commentary they provoke. Andrew Sullivan’s husband, Aaron-a smart, funny actor whose healthy distance from DC officialdom is always an enormous relief at these gatherings-had brought along his mother, a retired school-bus driver from Michigan, as his date. Andrew introduced Aaron as his husband-to Barbara Walters, of all people-just as I was on the verge of introducing myself to Aaron’s mom. Only when I extended my hand, I realized that she was crying. “So proud,” she said a couple of times, and when she was able to talk more she added, “You know, he’s had to fight so hard.” Suddenly, I was tearing up, too-next to that, you realize, meeting celebrities really is pretty fucking meaningless.