It was telling that Vanity Fair had bought more tables at the dinner than most of the Washington news organizations.
On the way home (we skipped the after-parties), I suddenly realized that this grotesque event signaled the end of power as we have known it. That dinner — which seemed to have more celebrities, clients and advertisers than journalists and politicians — was the tipping point.
As Tom Brokaw noted the next day on “Meet the Press,” it’s time to rethink the “glittering” annual dinner. The event, he said, “separates the press from the people they’re supposed to serve, symbolically.”
The decline of power has been happening for a while. In 1987, I wrote a piece for this magazine called “The Party’s Over.” In it, I chronicled the demise of the Washington hostess. That was 25 years ago, and people were complaining even then that Washington would never be the same.
But power still trumped money in those days. Today, money trumps power. If Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, were having a party today, and politicians or statesmen received a conflicting invitation to a party put together by Sheldon Adelson (Gingrich’s super PAC guy), where do you think people would go? Adelson. No question. Now, at a party, if you find people staring over your shoulder to see who’s more important in the room, they’re usually looking at someone rich, rather than someone powerful. (Or perhaps they’re staring at themselves in a mirror, as I once observed.)
Power in Washington used to be centered on the White House, the Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and the journalists. Today, all of those groups depend on money for their very existence. The real power lies with the lobbyists, the money-raisers, the super PACs, the bundlers, the corporations and rich people. The hottest ticket on the planet is not an invitation to the White House but an invitation to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The irony is that in New York, I’m told, people are interested in power. In Washington, people are interested in money.
Think about it. The White House’s power comes from the money people give the president. He wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for his big donors. He had a Hollywood fundraiser last month at George Clooney’s house where he raised $15 million. Those are the people who count. If the president thought that there was real power in Washington, that the Congress, the diplomatic corps or the journalists could help him in any way, then he and the first lady would surely go out more often.