There comes a time, late in every president’s second term—if he (or possibly she) is both fortunate and unfortunate enough to have one—where exhaustion overtakes ambition and the brilliant veneer of pomp and circumstance begins to strip away.
When daily life in White House isn’t becoming a kind of high-level drudgery, it is fraying or, in extreme cases, conspicuously falling apart. Think of Ronald Reagan’s descent into the Iran-Contra scandal or Bill Clinton’s pathetic parsing of his “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky.
Or Barack Obama’s rising bile in response to the obstructionism of Washington Republicans, manifested as a display of unleashed id, ungoverned by tactful superego, in his hilariously angry comic performance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner—during which he repeated over and over an expression that sounded dangerously close to “Fuck it.”
“Welcome to the fourth quarter of my presidency,” the president addressed the 2,700 or so gussied-up dinner-goers in the basement ballroom of the Washington Hilton—prompting a triumphant whoop from the dais. “That was Michelle cheering,” he ad-libbed—accurately.
“I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left,” he went on. “After the midterm elections my advisers asked me, ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have something that rhymes with ‘bucket list.’”
The room exploded with a roar of recognition. Nearly everyone, with the possible exception of starry-eyed first-timers—namely, weary politicians and jaded journalists, greasy lobbyists and greedy corporate executives, honored guests and shameless party-crashers, plus a dwindling contingent of A-list celebs—seemed to be feeling the same thing.
Call it, for lack a better term, the “fuck it” phase of the Washington political cycle, as reliable and inevitable as 17-year cicadas.
“The Obama people are really bitter,” one of Washington’s savvier journalists informed me after encountering Ben Rhodes, the press-handling deputy White House national security adviser, hanging out in the smoking area of the MSNBC after-party, puffing on a cigarette. “They’re like an ’80s rock band. Nobody cares anymore.”
Also at the ear-splitting MSNBC do—where the younger folks danced to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”—Comcast government relations chief David Cohen held court on the top tier of a cavernous three-tiered party space.
He responded tersely when asked why the cable and media behemoth, which swallowed up NBC Universal four years ago, failed in its attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable.
“I’m not here to talk about that,” Cohen said, two days after he was forced to acknowledge defeat after a dispiriting meeting with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, ironically a former cable industry lobbyist. “We got a great company. Movin’ on!”
The shocking thing about the deal’s collapse was that even the fiercest opponents of the Comcast-TWC merger, notably telecomm expert and visiting Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford, believed that Cohen’s multimillion-dollar war chest and army of lobbyists would be unstoppable.
“We have a weird relationship,” Cohen said about Crawford. “I’ve never met her.”
Meanwhile, after the once and current chief of NBC News, Andy Lack, came and went, various NBC News and MSNBC types speculated that a story in that morning’s New York Times, reporting that the internal investigation of Brian Williams’s embellishments was discovering further instances of fabrication, was a purposeful leak from Comcast or NBC Universal upper management.
“It seems like somebody wants Andy Lack to understand, in case he feels otherwise, that Brian can’t come back,” one NBC Kremlinologist told me, noting that the suspended Nightly News anchor and Lack have been close friends since the latter’s first seven-year term running the news division in the 1990s.
Interim anchor Lester Holt, meanwhile, smiled mutely, in a decorous lip-zipping manner, when a partygoer suggested he should get the job permanently.
A poignant sensation of what Jimmy Carter might have described as “malaise” seemed to hang over many of these social gatherings that occupied the endless Washington weekend—expensively catered, generously liquored, elaborately produced and cheek-by-jowl, to be sure, but also celebrations that sometimes seemed forced and hollow.
Then again, maybe it was just me—although it’s also true that the cast of The Walking Dead was impossible to avoid during the party rounds.
And, of course, who could ignore the amazingly thatch-roofed Donald Trump and his glittering wife, Melania? Certainly not the president, who affected mild surprise that they even showed up, four years after Obama eviscerated the Celebrity Apprentice star at a previous White House Correspondents’ Dinner over his constant harping on that birth certificate issue. “And Donald Trump is here. Still,” Obama quipped, to laughter.
As Trump made his way past the magnetometers and down a staircase into the ballroom, he was clearly in a fabulous mood—the best!—happy to be besieged by admirers and/or curiosity seekers inquiring about his presidential campaign plans and demanding selfies.
Is 2016 finally the year when he’ll finally take the plunge?
“You watch!” Trump advised, adding cheerfully, “I know you’ve written some nasty things about me—but overall, good!”
“I have no comment about it,” Melania told me with a grin when I asked about her prospective campaign for First Lady.
ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, who obligingly took snapshots of Trump and his fans with other people’s iPhones when not posing for grip-and-grins with the Trumps himself, reported: “He says he’s serious. I don’t know about what. But he’s serious.”
The Donald, meanwhile, was crowing about the apparently healthy ratings for his Miss Universe beauty pageant. “NBC just renewed it for three seasons! Something we know about television—if they renew it, you’re doing well. It’s not about personality, right?”
“That was weird,” the Atlantic’s erudite editor-at-large, foreign policy maven Steve Clemons, confided after his brief encounter with The Donald. “That was an out-of-body experience.”
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright arrived on the arm of soon-to-retire CBS newsman Bob Schieffer with her television doppelgänger, Tea Leoni, star of the CBS series Madam Secretary, along with Tim Daly, who plays her character Elizabeth McCord’s husband.
Albright, who ran the State Department during the second Clinton term, said she’s looking forward to campaigning for Hillary. “Very! As much [as] she wants,” Albright said, mustering what seemed a rare display of genuine excitement. “I think that people want to have a sense of where the country’s going. I know that she will be a terrific president. But I’m not an objective observer.”
Did Albright use a private email account when she was at State?
“Because I went to college at a time between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire, I did not have it,” she answered—and an aide later explained that Secretary Albright didn’t use email at all.
Earlier in the day, at an oversubscribed pre-game brunch at the former Georgetown estate of the late Washington Post doyenne Katharine Graham—where Katie Couric couldn’t move an inch without yet another photo request, and had to be led by this reporter through the mob to the bar—a prominent Washington political activist admitted that support of Hillary is more dutiful than enthusiastic this time around.
Expressing concern over the dicey perception of the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising behavior, this person (who asked not to be identified) added: “And this email thing drove me fucking nuts!”
At which various members of Team Hillary, including former press secretary Lisa Caputo and current media adviser Mandy Grunwald, suddenly appeared and exchanged greetings. Smiles all around.
For some reason—actually because the current owner of the Graham mansion, venture capitalist Mark Ein, also co-owns the Washington Kastles women’s pro tennis team—a human being costumed as a giant tennis ball wandered in and out of conversations, waving outsized cartoon-character hands.
Still, it was impressive to see lawyer John Coale, Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren’s husband, walking into the scrum on a cane and then holding forth from a wheelchair.
Eight days after having his chest cavity pried apart for open-heart surgery, Coale clearly wanted to be there.
“After days of being in bed, attended by nurses, I just had to get out and see people,” Coale explained.
Well, there is that.