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"Nerd Prom" no longer: Celebrities steal spotlight from press, president, politicians, at White House Correspondents' Dinner and after-parties

Donovan McNabb wants his picture taken with Justin Bieber just like everyone else at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Amy Argetsinger/The Washington Post)

It's time to concede that the White House Correspondents' Association dinner doesn't have much to do with the White House and its correspondents anymore. Forget about that cute, self-deprecating "nerd prom" image -- sorry, but nerds can't get into the parties anymore.

The quintessentially Washington party has morphed into a Washington-themed party, with the president and politicians playing decorative cameos for the sake of the corporate muckety-mucks and a parade of celebrities who've just jetted in.

Scarlett Johansson with Arianna Huffington at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party after the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Justin Bieber, the tiny tween idol with a big bow tie, was striding out of the dining room of the Hilton Washington Saturday night when a much larger man stopped him and asked to shake his hand.

"My daughter loves you," said Donovan McNabb.

Bieber, 16, with a swagger way beyond his years, turned and took the new Redskins quarterback's outstretched hand. "You might want to shake it before I go to the bathroom," the singer said. McNabb waited for Bieber to emerge from the men's room and asked for photo with him. "This is going to help me at home," he said.

Real Washington or reel Washington? Look, it's the Jonas Brothers! Scarlett Johansson. Jessica Alba. That actress from "Sex and the City"! Cynthia Nixon? Yes, but also Kristin Davis. Judd Apatow. Michael Douglas. Terrence Howard. The guy from "The Hangover." Bradley Cooper? Sure, he's here too, but that one's Zach Galifianakis.

Clay Boardman and Jenny Sanford at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party. (Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage )

"Who's that tall woman in the corner?" whispered one guest in our ear. "She looks so familiar, but I can't place her." There, near the entrance of the exclusive Vanity Fair/Bloomberg after party at the French ambassador's residence, stood Kathryn Bigelow, without her Best Director Oscar. "Of course!" sighed our new buddy. "I should have recognized her."

It was like that all night, that weird disconnect of seeing famous faces (you know them from somewhere) showing up out of context. That glowing brunette in the blue dress? Took all night to realize it was Katie Lee Joel, almost ex-wife of Billy Joel.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Celebrity stargazing, like bird-watching, is all about seeing the live creature -- which then grants you the firsthand knowledge to observe: "Donatella Versace's head is too big for her body." Another field note: "Kim Kardashian is unbelievably gorgeous in person -- better than all her pictures."

Actress Kristin Davis with Katie Couric. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

Out on the crammed balcony, Eric Holder lit up when he spotted actor Adrian Grenier. "Hey, it's Vince from 'Entourage'! One of my favorite shows!" The attorney general effusively introduced himself to the young heartthrob, then launched into a detailed discussion of last season's plot. "I'm going to work my way on the show," he told Grenier. "I might be able to do something about that," responded the startled actor.

A few feet away, Ryan Seacrest was swarmed by fans, who didn't really have much to say to him once in his vicinity; they just wanted a picture with him. (Whatever happened to autographs?) "No, no, not good," muttered one fan after snapping a photo, and Seacrest posed for another.

Used to be, names in the headlines were the big "get" guests for media organizations. This year there was only one zeitgeisty figure amid the showbiz cluster: Jenny Sanford, the former first lady of South Carolina -- there with her new boyfriend of about six weeks, Georgia businessman Clay Boardman. His arms were around her waist as they talked with another couple. And then they were holding hands. And then his arm was draped the length of her back, his hand gently grazing her behind.

Late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon chats up health secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

Readers, if you assumed this sudden relationship was a rebound/revenge charade -- well, half of the professional thespians in that room would not be capable of such a good acting job. We're totally buying it.

We flashed back to other couples who first went public at WHCAD parties past: Jon Favreau and Rashida Jones; Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche. Sanford and Boardman seemed awfully happy and comfortable in their public bliss. Was this their coming-out party?

"We're happy to be here," she said. "And we're happy to be together."

There were, to be fair, a few administration and political insiders: Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Peter Orszag, Chris Dodd, John Dingell, Colin Powell, Kathleen Sebelius ("She used to be governor of Kansas," explained one guest to his date). Former White House social secretary DesireƩ Rogers whisked past her successor, Julianna Smoot. Michael Bloomberg attended Newsweek's pre-dinner party, but bolted back to New York for the Times Square bomb scare. But political insiders were outnumbered by showbizzers: Ashley Judd, in a white gown and antebellum hair orchids, in the role of Miss Scarlett, Policy Wonk. Angela Bassett. Jon Bon Jovi. Jessica Simpson, looking miserable -- because ex Tony Romo was there with his new girlfriend? (A Jessica 2.0 type, Candice Crawford.)

Anna Kendrick with Luke Russert at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair afterparty (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

The whole night felt like an Escher print: Stars mingled with politicians who huddled with other stars, folding and twisting into some complicated version of fame and power. The night was flawless; the ambassador's residence looked like the set for a movie someone would build if they were filming an embassy party, complete with jewel-toned lights illuminating the trees and mist machines creating an ethereal cloud over the grounds.

It was Jimmy Fallon's first WHCAD weekend. "I was told that locals and press people would bother me," confided the late-night host, who was, in fact, having a great time. "Super fun. It's almost like being at a wedding."

Just then, GQ correspondent Ana Marie Cox bounded up. "We just had a shot of tequila," a breathless Cox told him. "Would you like to come meet my date?" Fallon politely demurred. Cox explained that she was really drunk and then repeated her request. He again said no, but softened the blow by reassuring her that she didn't seem that drunk. Then she wandered off.

An actual White House correspondent, Nicholas Johnston of Bloomberg, approached Johansson as the starlet chatted poolside with a few friends around 1:15 a.m. Could he please get a photo with her?

Morgan Freeman at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair afterparty. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

"I'm sorry," she sighed. "It's too late."

It went like that, more or less, until after 3 a.m. Near the entrance, Katie Couric had kicked off her high-heel gold sandals and settled into a settee. We plopped down next to her, also shoeless. Her date, actor Morgan Freeman, came over and started giving her a foot massage.

And yes, readers, we got one, too, which was kind of sweet and random and had nothing to do with politics or journalism. But no, we didn't ask for a picture.

See also:

White House Correspondents' Dinner full coverage (photos, video, etc.)

'Healthy' relations on display at White House Correspondents' Association Dinner (photo gallery here)

White House Correspondents' Dinner: President Obama cracks wise

Jay Leno's routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

White House Correspondents Dinner: The parade of celebrities begins with the pre-parties. (Kim Kardashian? Did we know she was supposed to be here?)

Washington's own Super Bowl: The incredible party sprawl of the White House Correspondents' Dinner (A fashionable fly-in for Hollywood types who need a red carpet to be photographed on between Coachella and Cannes)

By The Reliable Source  |  May 2, 2010; 6:32 PM ET
Categories:  Parties , Politics , White House Correspondents' Association Dinner  
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In some ways these things were better when they were wonkier & fewer people paid attention to them.

Posted by: Nymous | May 2, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

Ha. Yes, probably.

Posted by: The Reliable Source | May 2, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

I dunno. It looks like the same old smattering of a few celebrities mingling with Washington correspondents.

The Democrats have somewhat of an edge, as they have more Hollywood connections than the Republicans.

It's difficult to believe that Jon Stewart wasn't there, as he loves the Democrats to the point of not being funny sometimes.

Posted by: postfan1 | May 3, 2010 3:38 AM | Report abuse

I liked it better when it was a prom for nerds. This one was silly. All the press coverage afterward is even sillier, crushing on celebrities. Is this what the Press is about thesedays? That is why I loved the President's slide show on Politico.

In my opinion, all those "celebrities" were not the heavyweight of filmdom, etc. Those who are serious enough to have something to say where absent, ie, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, etc. Lots of "cuties" and nothing else; a chance to strut on a phoney red carpet in a dressed up thing.

The awards for Journalism were incidental; would have been nice to have learned a little about them instead of a rushed, bungled 2 sentences and more awards to recognize anything good to have come from the Press this past year. A whopping $135,000 in scholarships is the best that crowd could come up with? Shameful and embarrassing.
The best thing of the evening was The President's jokes and speech. The worst part was The Professional Entertainer and the crowd, professional journalists, who were so crude and crass in their behavior and so full of themselves that they could not contain and control themselves long enough to get through the National Anthem and Presentation of Colors with some silent respect, via live coverage, uninterrupted by chatter, on C-Span. Disgusting.

Posted by: nana4 | May 3, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Talk about narcissism. No one cares that members of the media met celebrities - except the members of the media. Dear God, PLEASE get your collective nose out of your navels.

Posted by: uberblonde1 | May 3, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

This bacchanalian scene will herald the fall of western civilization..

Posted by: leilaash | May 3, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

This is all little embarrassing. Why are people like Kim Kardashian even there, i.e. - what exactly has she accomplished?

The President was funny - it's funny when he starts to laugh before he delivers the punchline.

Posted by: sharedgum | May 3, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

People at the parties sure do not dress funny and without style lik teabaggers.

Posted by: truth1 | May 3, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

It was the same way when Regan was in office. Just because you are in Hollywood does not make you less politically astute than the rest of us. They have the same concerns we do and enjoy the political scene as well.

Posted by: ivyleague | May 3, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Was Producer Paul there? Did he swoon when he saw Miss Scarlett?

Posted by: Californian11 | May 3, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Was Producer Paul there? Did he swoon when he saw Miss Scarlett?

Posted by: Californian11 | May 3, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Michael Douglas should have had the grace to stay home.

Luke Russert? Please! Enough of this booze hound parasite. His face looks like a map of Ireland as they say.

Katie Couric literally looks like death warmed over in this photo.

Posted by: JackStar | May 3, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Wow, stars turn into glassbowls after midnight, I guess, huh? Fallon saying no to a simple request? Scarlett saying it's "too late" for a pic? Wow, where's the humility, folks?

Posted by: sigmagrrl | May 3, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Remember in high school when the Newspaper geeks hung out with the English majors, who hung out with the popular Drama kids. And they ran the morning announcements, the pledge, at the booster parties, football games, and knew a few jocks.

Ta-da. As the song says, High School never ends.

And what was once serious business in DC is now a Hollywood side show--in order to manipulate ..... you, of course.

Posted by: recharged95 | May 3, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

How very declasse of you to report that ana marie cox was drunk- got some kind of vendetta against her? You are worse than school children.

Posted by: prisrob2003 | May 3, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

We didn't report she was drunk -- we don't know. We reported that she *said* she was drunk, and that Jimmy Fallon said she didn't seem that drunk. To see actual Washington journalists at these parties having actual fun was rare and good and worth noting.

Posted by: The Reliable Source | May 4, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

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