The Magazine

Prom Night

Matt Labash, D.C. debutante.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By MATT LABASH
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Every spring in Washington, a ritual commences with the predictability of the cherry blossoms blooming around the Tidal Basin or the silvery hickory shad making their spawning run up the Potomac. Frumpy reporters put on their party heels and enshroud their hunchbacks in Men's Wearhouse tuxedos, welcome a cavalcade of so many B-list stars that it feels like The Love Boat without Dramamine, and pack the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, a.k.a. "the Hinckley Hilton" where Ronald Reagan nearly met his end, for the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. All of this is to celebrate their favorite cause: themselves.

The media being the media, however, they can never celebrate anything--even themselves--without feeling lousy about it. So after plunking down thousands for tables, after spending months maneuvering for tickets to the right after-party, after keeping calendars clear so that they're not on assignment during Prom, as it's often called, the default posture of roughly 80 percent of the crowd is that the dinner is beneath them. They feign disgust at the preening, the pomposity, the oily social calibration that is at once obsequious and pretentious. How this differs from your average episode of Countdown with Keith Olbermann has never been entirely clear to me.

Therefore, mindful of La Rochefoucauld's maxim that "it is our own vanity that makes the vanity of others intolerable to us," I've managed to attend for 12 straight angst-free years. Along with my friends--a loose coalition of media types who keep getting older but whose emotional maturity stays lodged at 22 years of age--we have found the keys to successful attendance.

I part with these secrets reluctantly, since when I lecture in schools, I like to tell the kids not to drink unless it's for a very good reason, like making the pain stop. But our twofold approach is simple: (a) Have no shame, and (b) ingest copious amounts of free hooch. Neither is usually a problem for us. We are, after all, journalists. Doing these things is like body surfing with a wave, rather than swimming against it. It has gotten us through the dinner, the after-parties, the after-after-parties, and our super-secret triple-after-party, which we like to call "breakfast."

One of the joys of the dinner is watching the regular Washington hierarchy get upended. The usual administration and chat-show hacks who pass for celebrities in D.C. now have to contend with those of the Holly-wood variety, knocking them down a peg in the social order. It is always a joy to see a grown man interrupt his conversation with Condoleezza Rice to exclaim, "Hey, it's the fat guy from Survivor!"

Therefore, I tend to collect memorable celebrity encounters like scalps, afterwards putting them in my Special Memories box. I've gotten buzzed with Sean Penn, when we swapped stories about his former relative, B-1 Bob Dornan (his brother was married to Dornan's daughter). And I have told Dana Delaney that I work for the most influential organ in the history of political thought, which she seemed to believe, though she'd never heard of us.

I've made small talk with Elle Macpherson, who affected cool detachment but who clearly wanted to take me home and ravish me, though I couldn't, because I'm married and not into shallow supermodels. I've been bullied by Donald Trump. After traveling with him as he explored a Reform party presidential candidacy, I wrote a piece unfortunately titled "A Chump on the Stump." Months later when I encountered him at the dinner, he said, "I think you know what I think of you--not much. Now head out." When I remarked that he couldn't kick me out of a party that wasn't his, he headed out. I've always respected him for that. It was classy, as he would say.

I've held Bo Derek's hand, while cooing, "There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who understand [her 1984 softcore film] Bolero and those who don't. Bo, I understand." Her smile said, "Thank you," while her eyes said, "Security!" And after I asked Heidi Klum how to tell the difference between a supermodel and just a really swell model, she cocked her head like an adorably confused puppy. I wanted to take her to PetSmart, to buy her a soft toy with a bell in it.

Often, during these encounters, I do most of the talking, figuring after so many years of taking from celebrities, it's my turn to give back. Sure, their attention, even if commandeered, appeals to my vanity. But so what? As Mark Twain wrote, "There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it."

MATT LABASH