CEOs Shut Out at White House Correspondents Dinner

Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook Inc.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook Inc.

Lindsay Lohan will be attending—with her lawyer, naturally. George Clooney wouldn’t miss it. With Kim Kardashian and Steven Spielberg rounding out the guest list, it’s hard to believe anyone would call this weekend’s White House Correspondents Association dinner a “nerd prom.”

But where are the business leaders?

This year’s group of invitees includes just six people who could be said to be in business, out of more than 120 known guests. Of those, at least three have reasons to be invited other than for their business acumen.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is attending as a guest of National Public Radio—but Hughes, who recently bought the venerable opinion journal,"The New Republic", is now a capital player proper.

Ari Emanuel, CEO of William Morris Endeavor talent agency, is an entertainment world eminence more than a corporate type. (His brother, Rahm, was also President Obama’s first White House chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago.)

Stacy Snider, co-chairwoman and CEO of DreamWorks Studios , will also be perfectly comfortable among the glitterati.

That leaves “non-executive chairman” of Estee Lauder Ronald Lauder, and his daughter Aerin Lauder, who started her own lifestyle brand last year, and Ivanka Trump, whose father has attended in the past but who is listed among Politico’s guests as “entrepreneur.”

The only major corporate figure on the guest list at this writing is Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google.

Celebrity guests have long been invited to the correspondents’ dinner to flesh out a traditionally pallid crowd of pusillanimous pen-pushers — emphasis on flesh.

The 1962 edition, the first that welcomed women as guests, yielded a photo of President Kennedy flanked by winsome singer Julie London and the leggy star at the time of the TV series “The Roaring 20’s,” Dorothy Provine.

By then, it was already difficult to reconcile the celeb-fabulous WHCA dinner with the event that Franklin Roosevelt once used to harangue the press about the imminent threat of global war. By 1999, Jake Tapper, now ABC News' senior White House correspondent, called the dinner in Salon, "a grotesque symbol of the state of American journalism."

“It’s the one night the guys on the chess club have a chance to date the cheerleaders,” says Stephen J. Farnsworth, an historian of presidency and the media.

No journalist, in short, wants to compete for a starlet’s attention with Jeffrey Immelt, head of General Electric (which owns a minority stake in CNBC).

So while on almost every other day of the year, power counts in Washington equally, at least, to beauty, the focus at tomorrow’s dinner is on schmoozing with the stars.

The current concern about income gaps, CEO pay, automobile company bailouts and bank stress-tests also discourages politicians and media personalities from interacting with corporate honchos.

“The last thing anyone is thinking about right now is drawing more attention to their connections to the business community,” says Farnsworth.

The lack of interest may be entirely mutual. Insiders say that Wall Streeters and other corporate players often receive invites, but rarely accept.

“Business leaders know they are not the center of attention for the event,” says David Rehr, a former president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who has attended several dinners. “And that’s probably why they don’t show up.”

This distance only puts an exclamation point on Schmidt’s presence at Politico’s table. While attendees and other dinner-watchers agree that little outright lobbying goes on at the gathering, Google has increasingly delicate dealings with the federal government, and has been strenuously raising their profile in D.C. of late.

Also sitting at Politico’s table, according to the website, will be Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which recently investigated Google over privacy questions. (The investigation resulted in a small fine against Google for impeding the inquiry, a charge that Google has disputed.)

The site also says that Schmidt will be a guest on Sunday at a post-WHCA brunch given by Politico’s publisher, Robert Allbritton.

Calling attention to such political gristle seems out of place, however, when talking about an event that has become a dog-and-pony show—literally: Washington Times will bring as its guest Uggie, the canine star of the Academy-Award winning movie, “The Artist.”