Isabel Oakeshott is co-author with Lord Ashcroft of Call Me Dave and Political Editor at Large of the Daily Mail.
They call it the “nerd prom” – but whoever invented the nickname probably wasn’t invited. For the legendary annual White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD) is attended by Hollywood A-Listers, Victoria’s Secret models and Kardashians as well as geeks and is the hottest ticket in Washington’s social calendar.
Every year, the President of the United States delivers a self-deprecating after-dinner speech to an audience of 2,700 global media and political power players and celebrities.It’s the centrepiece of a weekend of glittering parties across town thrown by newspapers, Internet companies, politicos, and lobbyists –and if someone offers to take you, the only answer is yes.
When I wangled an invitation courtesy of the American political strategist Gerry Gunster and Brexit campaigner Arron Banks, I couldn’t believe my luck. Junkets don’t come much better – but I was also there to work.
It was an opportunity to get a sense of how America’s political elite view the prospect of Brexit as well as to gauge the mood at a critical juncture in US elections.
A bonus would be finding out more about Banks. The Bristol-based insurance man is currently ploughing more money into British politics than any other individual, having spent £5 million so far on Brexit. He says it’s just the start of his foray into politics. What would he be like?
I kept a diary for ConHome.
Friday 29 April:
I meet Banks and his charming sidekick Andy Wigmore at Heathrow for a midday flight. Wigmore looks sharp and sports the permatan of a man who spends much of the year in the Caribbean. Banks is in casuals.
We’ll be attending various smart parties, but it emerges Banks has come without a suit. Apparently he’s put on so much weight during the campaign that he only has one left that fits. Unfortunately someone sent it to the cleaners. He plans to race to a tailor as soon as we get to Washington, which strikes me as optimistic. Here’s hoping he finds something, or he’ll be dining with Hollywood royalty and the leader of the free world wearing a moss green woolly jumper and slacks.
We arrive at Washington Dulles Airport where Wigmore breezes through a diplomatic fast track, courtesy of a role with the government of Belize. I tailgate and it works. In a delay that threatens to derail his quest for a suit, Banks is detained for an hour at immigration. I abandon him to his fate and head for my hotel.
I’m booked into the Mayflower, an Art Deco-style jewel of a place a stone’s throw from the White House. The scene of several political sex scandals, it oozes old school American charm. Sadly there’s no time to soak up the atmosphere before the social whirl begins. I check in, shower and don a frock.
In a neighbouring hotel I meet our host Gunster, America’s answer to Lynton Crosby. For the past few months he’s been working for Banks, as a consultant on Brexit. We are joined by Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey, a Labour “Outer” who has also been invited.
We have a cocktail and wait for Banks. Eventually he appears, sporting a bespoke suit. A tailor whipped it up it in an hour. Evidently money talks.
Gunster’s driver ferries us to our first engagement, a reception at the Washington Post. Now owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, the newspaper famous for breaking the Watergate scandal has swanky new offices with walls that gleam under the blinking light of dozens of giant overhead screens displaying minute analysis of the social media reaction to stories. The high tech revamp is designed to scream that this iconic brand won’t be going the way of the other dead tree press.
By the time we arrive, the drinks reception is over, the last stragglers trooping out, but we’re on the guest list for a “VIP after-party” on the top floor. The champagne, sushi and views from the roof terrace are spectacular, but for me the highlight is a private tour of the newsroom.
Our guide, one of the most senior executives, is positively evangelical about “Jeff’s” campaign to haul the paper into the 21st century, breathlessly explaining how digital headlines are calibrated to suit individual readers. There is lots of talk about algorithms and “bots”. The place is eerily quiet, the only sound coming from hidden speakers which pump out “white noise.”
I leave wondering if Jeff plans to deliver news content by drone.
Saturday 30 April:
I’ve read about the year-long campaign of schmoozing, backstabbing and slimy manoeuvring it takes to lay hands on tickets for the WHCD. The event is so huge I suspect we’ll need binoculars to see POTUS and FLOTUS. (Diners who discover they’ve been allocated seats in orbit have been known to flounce out.) We will warm up at another pre-party, this time hosted by Yahoo, also at the Hilton, where the dinner has been held for the last 47 years.
The hotel foyer is a sea of secret service agents, satin and tuxes. Just inside the entrance. Banks of photographers are hemmed behind barriers, poised for red carpet arrivals. Girls holding table tennis rackets emblazoned with names of media organisations act as human signposts for private pre-parties. I soon learn the lingo – there’s no accessing any party unless you’ve “checked-in” on an iPad and someone verifies you’re “good to go”.
Yahoo’s reception room is bathed in the company’s signature blue-ish purple light. The Brexit crew stands around rather awkwardly until the room fills up. The booze flows.
The big bash
Someone signals it’s time for the big one, and everyone pours out of the pre-parties like tributaries into a river of dinner jackets and rainbow-coloured lycra and silk. The rubbernecking begins.
Over the next few hours, it transpires that Wigmore is a shameless selfie collector, brazenly accosting every actor and celebrity he sees. Buoyed by an early success with Whoopi Goldberg, he gets super excited when we spot Helen Mirren, making a beeline for the actress, iPhone aloft. With a disdainful twitch of the nose, she bats him off. He returns, tail between legs.
Hovering at entrance to the 30,000-square-foot ballroom, we are surprised to bump into David Cameron’s former policy chief Steve Hilton, now US-based. He greets us exuberantly but his wife Rachel Whetstone looks like she’s swallowed a fly. She warms up when Hoey gets her talking about Brexit, saying she supports Out and wishes she could do more for the cause. Hilton keeps his powder dry but I know he was deeply unimpressed by Obama’s intervention in the debate.
Finally it is time to go in. Our table is respectably located in the outer middle, but POTUS and FLOTUS are still distant specs. We are seated with a Washington journalist, a couple of corporate types and the Republican Governor of Florida, Rick Scott.
Banks, a big Fox News fan, recognises several of the TV station’s anchors sitting nearby. Bashfully, he goes to introduce himself. Wigmore, who is almost bouncing with enthusiasm, has his sights on a Victoria’s Secret model with a slinky red dress and a tattoo on the nape of her neck. He casts her a megawatt smile and aims his iPhone, without luck. He does better with Ariana Huffington and Doug Stamper from House of Cards.
As the room fills, I stare at an enormous bloke wearing a denim jacket and a vertical ponytail. It turns out he’s an American pop culture commentator called The Fat Jewish with a mere 8.3 million Instagram followers.
Suddenly, a brass band strikes up the Star Spangled Banner and everyone rises for the National Anthem. The dinner has kicked off.
Columbian Marching Orders
Four hours later, we stagger out. We are jet-lagged, dizzied by the scale and superficiality of it all and overfed on political in-jokes we didn’t get. We have an invitation to a promising-sounding after-party hosted by the Columbian ambassador, and stumble off into the night.
Gunster’s driver is waiting to whisk us there, but when we pitch up at the Embassy, the lights are out. By the time we realise the party is being held at the ambassador’s private residence, everyone’s too tired and heads for bed.
Sunday 1st May
I wake up with a hangover at 5.30am and can’t get back to sleep. According to our itinerary, we’re going to someone’s house for brunch. Groggily I pull on a pair of black jeans and pink cashmere jumper, scrape back my hair, and stumble into a cab, picturing a chilled out get-together over coffee and subs.
The minute we roll up in front of a spectacular colonial style mansion in Washington’s most exclusive district, I realise I have made a terrible mistake. This is not some little get together in someone’s front room. We are at the private home of Robert Allbritton, son of the late Texan billionaire Joe Allbritton and now owner of the American political journalism giant Politico. As I step out of the car into the rain, I am propelled towards to the entrance by security men with earpieces and girls whose sole function is to shield guests from the rain with giant golf umbressa. As I am escorted into the property, passing priceless pieces of art, is immediately apparent that I am grotesquely underdressed.
In the garden is the most lavish marquee I have ever seen, thronging with gentlemen who look as if they’ve stepped out of Swiss watch adverts and immaculately manicured ladies in towering heels and tight fitting cocktail dresses. Gunster estimates that we are surrounded by “£100m worth of advertising power”.
Liveried waiters circulate silver platters of exquisite canapes: slivers of cream cheese and prosciutto on crisp bread and hand made chocolates sprinkled with gold dust. Linen covered tables groan with raspberry pink and lavender macaroons and a Chinese chef serves Asian delicacies. It is like a scene from the Great Gatsby.
Banks talks Brexit with an array of powerful politicians and lobbyists including Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party. Wigmore skitters about, delighting the Yanks with his cheeky chappie charm. Hoey frets that she’s in too many photos with Republicans and that we look like we’re having too good a time.
In a huddle under a lemon tree is Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the American Federal Reserve. Someone points out one of the journalists who broke Watergate. This is catnip to Wigmore, who whips out his iPhone. Unfortunately, he mistakes Greenspan for the Watergate bloke and attempts to engage the bewildered economist in a conversation about Deep Throat. Banks steps in just in time to stop him tweeting a picture of Greenspan as Carl Bernstein. (In fact, the Watergate reporter at the party is Bernstein’s former colleague Bob Woodward – so the mistake would have been even worse.)
Perhaps it’s the jetlag, too many cocktails, or both, but we can’t stop laughing. The air is heavy with the scent of fresh peonies. My head is swimming. It’s time to go.
So what did I learn?
That the US political outlook is as difficult to predict as our own right now. There seems to be a broad consensus that Donald Trump will win the Republication nomination, but opinion is deeply divided over how much further he will go. Gunster reckons he will crash and burn, winning as few as five states. Others are adamant he will make the White House.
I also learned that American politicos are genuinely interested in the EU referendum – and almost none are as doomladen about what Brexit might mean for the so-called special relationship.
Finally I learned that Banks is funny, irreverent, and serious about politics.
I asked how he will feel if it turns out he has wasted his money on the Brexit campaign. He shrugged and replied that he can always make more. I sense he’s caught the political bug.
Westminster has yet to take this hustler seriously – and he couldn’t care less. But I think he may be a new fixture on the political scene. Perhaps we should start listening up.