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‘Healthy’ relations at correspondents dinner

President Obama and administration officials spend the evening of the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner making up with Republicans who have denied a year of Democratic propositions.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They are going to hate themselves in the morning.

President Obama and senior administration officials spent the star-crossed evening of the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner making up with Republicans who have denied a year of Democratic propositions and a jilted press corps that is sore over Obama's cold shoulder. The evening, with all its pre-parties and after-parties, recalled the promise that Obama's inauguration held for more tender bipartisan relations. Now, after year of political breakups and unrequited media love, the boozy and sweaty Saturday night provided a shudder of "should we really be doing this" intimacy.

"A one-night stand?" said David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, at a garden brunch before the dinner. "You know, the truth is that there is such a hard edge, there is such a coarseness to our politics now, and so a night of fun together is good."

As Axelrod spoke on Saturday afternoon, Obama was similarly bemoaning, in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, the "poisonous political climate" of Washington and the irresponsibility of the media hyping "sexy" stories.

Once the dinner bell rang a few hours later, Obama was suited up at the ballroom dais with that very political-media complex. At the Hilton Washington, 3,000 dinner guests cavorted in tuxedos and ball gowns and rasied glasses to the president's good health. Obama then took the microphone. He joked at the expense of the birther movement, poked fun at Fox, MSNBC and CNN, and refreshed some old material about Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele. This year, he dubbed Steele "Notorious G.O.P." and said he had a problem with "taxation without representin'." He ventured again into the taboo topic of House Minority Leader John A. Boehner's deep tan.

The media also came in for some teasing that was both cutting and heart-quickening for its target audience. Referring to his poll numbers, Obama said, "I may not have the star power I once had, but in my defense, neither do all of you." He added that while he had done much to rescue many industries from economic peril, there was nothing he could to for the media. "I'm not a miracle worker."

Leno followed with a routine that flattened the evening's fizz, said the dinner was "as close to a White House press conference" the reporters had had in some time. "Enjoy it," he said. The "Tonight Show" host also ribbed Republicans, some of whom he said couldn't make it because it was "dollar drink night at the bondage club."

Before Obama arrived, VIPs descended on escalators into windowless clusters of cocktail parties, a schmooze gantlet for elected officials and reporters and film stars. "I represent Hollywood," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who welcomed guests at the Newsweek party. "Adrian Grenier just asked me if we could do some legislation on paparazzi."

Axelrod arrived shortly afterward and communed with Dreier and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser during President George H.W. Bush's term -- smiling, laughing, arm-squeezing.

So, did they feel like they were doing something sordid?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius assured that it was all perfectly "healthy."

"All of legislation is about relationships," she said as she squeezed past Dreier and receiving-line gawkers (Incoming: Gayle King! Bradley Cooper! Colin Powell!). "And the more there is an opportunity outside of some philosophical debate to actually get to know somebody, know about their kids, know where they are from, know their interests, that will be helpful the next time around."

As she spoke, Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corp., the parent corporation of Fox, which has consistently criticized the Obama administration said he had no doubts tonight was a good idea.

"Any mixing is good," he said, as his wife Wendi clasped his hand and guided him toward the canapes.

Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, whom some Democrats consider the opposition leader of the Republican Party, agreed with Murdoch, though he said there would be a lot more comity, except that "some people are thin- skinned and snipe at people more than they need to." He was referring to Obama.

Ailes also criticized the non-Fox News journalists covering the White House for not asking hard questions but said that tonight was not the night to raise that issue.

"They are not here as journalists; they are here as human beings who like to be recognized and have fun. They'll go back to being themselves tomorrow. Tonight it's just kind of a fun night," Ailes said, adding, "It's a fling."

(Later, Ailes said that the Fox executives at his table wagered whether the president would criticize their network, but Ailes said he wouldn't take umbrage if Obama did.)

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip from Richmond, wasn't feeling the love.

Standing under flat-screen flipping through magazine covers of Sarah Palin in running shorts and Obama as the "Post-Imperial President," Cantor said that the president was to blame for the "villain-ization" in Washington and said his government-can-be-good rhetoric was "falling on deaf ears."

He said he didn't plan on making any new drinking buddies tonight.

"I won't be doing any drinking tonight," he said.

Arianna Huffington, the conservative pundit turned liberal blog queen said there was nothing to get bent out of shape about.

"We are not going to give anything up," said Huffington, as she broke away from a conversation with Desirée Rogers, the former White House social secretary. The morning after, Huffington explained, need not be shameful. "You only regret it if you give something up."

Post reporter Jen Chaney contributed to this report.