Criticism of this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner was served even before the filet and flounder.
Broadcast legend Tom Brokaw told Politico that "the breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan," a reference to the appearance last year of the troubled actress, who came as a guest of Fox's Greta Van Susteren. "She became a big star at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, give me a break."
Mark Leibovich of the New York Times was next. He told C-Span, "There's a level of self-congratulation and self-celebration and so forth that can be very, you know, somewhat at odds with the mood of the country and how people view the media."
Sarah Palin must have been watching from home because while the dinner was under way, she tweeted: "That #WHCD was pathetic. The rest of America is out there working . . . while these DC . . . clowns throw themselves a #nerdprom"
I beg to differ. While the celebrity element is a distraction, the value of a civilized, nonpartisan gathering in a town poisoned by polarization is invaluable. Raising money for college journalism scholarships is an added benefit; this year, 16 students were recognized.
I concede some merit in Brokaw, Leibovich, and Palin focusing on celebrity excess. Many of us were once told we'd be judged by the company we keep, and perhaps there is some applicability to that sentiment, with the likes of Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, and Ozzy Osbourne in attendance.
This year's dinner had its share of celebrities. I followed Michael Douglas through the Magnetometer. From my seat, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara (Cam and Gloria on Modern Family) were two tables away. Behind me, rocker Jon Bon Jovi sat at the table hosted by Arianna Huffington.
But it was another of Huffington's guests who, to my eye, caused the greatest gridlock in the aisles. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a word or photograph with Chris Christie, even the stars. (I stood by as comedian Tracy Morgan lavished praise upon the New Jersey governor.)
Of course, today, many political reporters are themselves celebrities. But that's not because of the dinner. It's a reflection of a 24/7 news cycle that has made a group of individuals household names. These reporters won't take a dive for a politician just because they crossed paths at dinner.
Proof of that came just three days later, at a presidential news conference. When President Obama called on Fox News' Ed Henry, the outgoing president of the association that sponsors the correspondents' dinner, he pulled no punches:
"On Syria, you said that the red line was not just about chemical weapons being used but being spread, and it was a game-changer - it seemed cut-and-dry. And now your administration seems to be suggesting that line is not clear. Do you risk U.S. credibility if you don't take military action?"
Henry was followed a few questions later by Chuck Todd, the NBC White House correspondent, whom I also saw having a good time at the dinner. He asked the president:
"Max Baucus, Democratic senator, referred to the implementation of your health-care law as a potential 'train wreck.' . . . Why do you believe he's wrong?"
You can't get much more pointed than either of those questions.
At my table was Julie Mason, a colleague at SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124 who is also a former board member of the dinner's sponsor. Sitting in the Hilton ballroom jammed with 3,700 guests, Mason shared with me how the event has grown in popularity with the Hollywood set.
I wanted to know how the organizers handled the demands for seats by members of Congress. Apparently that's not an issue. With the dinner on a Saturday night, most are home in their districts. Too bad. The nation would be better served if, instead of going home to raise money, they stuck around, put on fancy clothes, and broke bread with colleagues. Above all else, what the dinner showcases is what our leadership often lacks - civility.
In that respect, it is reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Society, an annual gathering of the state's media and movers and shakers held every December in New York City.
In 2007, when Sen. Arlen Specter received that group's highest award, the Gold Medal, he summed up the night's value.
"If you can lift a glass together with your colleague from across the aisle on a Saturday night here in New York, you can lift your pen with that same colleague across the hall on Monday morning in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, or any place in our state," he said.
The president would have been correct in offering a similar assessment in Washington last weekend. With a comedian's timing, he delivered a very funny speech and concluded on a serious note. He thanked Bostonians in the aftermath of the marathon bombing, and then said:
"And so, those of us in this room tonight, we are incredibly lucky. And the fact is, we can do better - all of us. Those of us in public office, those of us in the press, those who produce entertainment for our kids, those with power, those with influence - all of us, including myself, we can strive to value those things that I suspect led most of us to do the work that we do in the first place - because we believed in something that was true, and we believed in service, and the idea that we can have a lasting, positive impact on the lives of the people around us."