President Obama will attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on Saturday night in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, which will be packed to overflowing with more than 2,600 people. It is the one event each year that brings together the Hollywood, sports, political, and journalistic communities.
The dinner, first held in 1924, has never been more popular, and the one constant in that success is the association’s executive director, Julia Whiston. She joined the WHCA in 1993, the first year the event sold out. Whiston spoke with National Journal in the group’s offices. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. How has the dinner changed?
WHISTON The demand has increased annually. It’s very hard for people to understand that they can’t have the number of tickets that they want.
NJ Why do you think it has become such a hot ticket?
WHISTON I think the dinner sold out the very first year that [Bill] Clinton was in the White House. I think his following in Hollywood really wanted to come celebrate and be at this dinner. There was a very large Hollywood presence that year, and the room filled up completely.
NJ How many tickets could you have sold this year if the room were bigger?
WHISTON Easily 3,600. We had more than a thousand paid ticket requests here that we had to return and refund.
NJ How have news organizations reacted when you tell them no? Do you get anger or flowers?
WHISTON Believe it or not, in years gone by we got a lot of flowers. For years now, we have gotten only anger. I would rather get the flowers.
NJ Can you talk about what the editor of The Washington Times threatened when he didn’t like the paper’s table placement in 1993?
WHISTON They were very upset. They wanted their tables changed. The editor of The Times said that if we didn’t move his tables, he was going to fill his—I believe it was five—tables, with homeless people. I told him I thought that would be a great thing to do, a great idea. We did promise to give them better tables the next year.
NJ You’ve dealt with such comedians as Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and Al Franken, and singers Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Any personal favorites who were dreams to work with?
WHISTON The absolutely easiest person is Jay Leno. He comes into town. He decides to walk down Connecticut Avenue and look for McDonald’s for lunch. He is gracious with everybody that he sees who works at the hotel.
NJ How about the entertainers who challenged you?
WHISTON Ray Charles was the biggest prima donna of all time, God rest his soul. He could be very, very difficult. We had asked if he would do his famous version of “America the Beautiful.” He said he would do that only if we paid an additional $250,000—on top of what he was already being paid. We said, “No, thank you.” Then, we were running a little bit ahead of schedule. He was introduced, and he wasn’t coming on. So I walked around behind stage and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, this is your cue. We’re ready to go.” He asked his aide what time it was, and when he found it was seven minutes earlier than his contract stated, he refused and stood behind stage—and left our president, Bob Deans, up there trying to make jokes for seven minutes and left the president of the United States waiting for seven minutes. That’s the prize.
NJ Any surprising or last-minute demands or crises?
WHISTON Oh, yes, Aretha Franklin that afternoon was rehearsing. She walked on stage in a raincoat and with a muffler on—in April. She said that she felt air circulating. She wanted no air conditioning, and she walked offstage and was refusing to perform that night. We had been told that we might have some difficult moments, so we had some help from someone who had worked with her before. We had hired him. So he went offstage and talked her out of that. We had air conditioning on obviously the entire night of the dinner. She had performed at Constitution Hall and made them turn off the air conditioning when she performed there, and people were ready to faint.
NJ Do you have a favorite memory from the dinner?
WHISTON I have to say my favorite memories are the same year after year. I love being offstage by the head table and having everybody standing when the color guard comes in and the Marine Band is playing. You really look around that room and see all the power, and you realize we are all in this together. The free press in a free society. It’s a very moving moment for me each year.
This article appears in the April 30, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.