Commentary: What the White House Correspondents Dinner Says About Washington

The elite of the nation's capital should rethink what it means to have money and power.

Posted: 04/26/2013 02:47 PM EDT

This weekend, 3,000 of the biggest names in politics, media and entertainment will put on their tuxedos and ball gowns and gather in Washington for the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. Hosted by late night talk show host Conan O'Brien, the event will help fund more than $100,000 in scholarships for needy kids.

It's a time-honored tradition that began in 1920 and since then has seen 14 presidents attend. It's also changed a lot since President Calvin Coolidge became the first president to participate in the event back in 1924.

After 40 years of exclusion, the once all-male event was finally opened up to women in 1962 when UPI correspondent Helen Thomas pushed President John F. Kennedy on the issue. He threatened to boycott if women were not included, and the ban was dropped. The dinner has come a long way since its early roots, and just as recently as 2009, comedian Wanda Sykes, an African-American lesbian, actually hosted the event.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the annual televised spectacle has now become a symbol of an out-of-touch Washington political elite and its incestuous relationship with a corporate-controlled media elite.

It's affectionately dubbed "nerd prom" by some observers and widely billed as the "hottest ticket in Washington," but it also reflects who and what Washington really cares about. This year's celebrity guests include Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Reese Witherspoon, Shaquille O'Neal, Sofia Vergara, Tracy Morgan, Gabby Douglas and, of course, Kerry Washington of the hit ABC TV drama Scandal. She's coming as a guest of ABC News. Media companies shell out $2,750 per table to show off their top talent and favorite celebrity guests.

The dinner provides an intoxicating mix of business and pleasure as the speeches will surely include plenty of great jokes from Conan O'Brien and President Obama to provide some levity for the weekend news shows.

But once the dinner is over and the TV cameras have been turned off, thousands of guests stream out of the Washington Hilton Hotel on their way to the $200,000 after-parties that cost twice as much to produce as the actual dinner will raise in scholarship funds. They'll walk away not only with a night of fond memories, but also with business cards from potential clients, gift bags filled with swag and new photos of themselves posing with celebrities to post on social media.

Last year, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw announced it was "time to rethink" the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, which he said "separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve, symbolically." I think he's right, but it's bigger than just one dinner.

I lived in Washington for eight years with many of the perks that come from the status as a member of the political elite. I sat in the president's box at the Kennedy Center and invited outside colleagues to dine with me at the White House Mess. I rode in the presidential motorcade through the streets of Washington and got quoted in the New York Times and Washington Post. Although I rode my bike to work and rented a modest apartment with a roommate, I knew how easily one could get caught up in the trappings of Washington power and status, especially in a world where the political hacks, reporters and pundits have themselves become celebrities.

Since I left Washington, I've had a different life as a self-employed writer and political commentator. I've had to survive paycheck to paycheck from time to time. I've lived without health insurance coverage for several years. I've seen rising unemployment in my Harlem neighborhood and in my own family. And I've tried to help my godsons struggling to meet the skyrocketing costs of college.

So when I think about politics, it's not just an academic discussion and it's not a parlor game about who's in or out. For me and for many others, it's about real life with real consequences for real people. And that's a message the political and media elite need to remember. While millions of Americans are still struggling to get by, it looks like Washington's rich and powerful are getting over.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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