In late February, Helen Thomas wrote a letter to the board of the White House Correspondents Association.
"As the first woman president to preside over the WHCA, and one of a few women who were instrumental in successfully convincing President Kennedy to boycott the dinner, it is very important to me to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this monumental feat with my family and close friends this year."
"I was told that past presidents are entitled to 2 tickets, and that because I retired from working at the White House when I was 90 years old, I am no longer eligible to purchase the table I have had for years. Even though I have retired, I continued to write a weekly column for the Falls Church New Press," she continued.
"I would appreciate -- particularly this year as we celebrate the 50 year anniversary of women being admitted to the WHCA dinner -- to share this celebration with my family and close friends one last time."
The argument apparently found little support in the ranks of the WHCA. Current president Caren Bohan of Reuters tells the Huffington Post that "the board decided in 2010 to set a policy that, as a courtesy to past presidents only, they would be eligible to purchase two tickets even if they are no longer covering the White House. Usually, people need to be members of the WHCA to purchase tickets on behalf of their news organizations."
The WHCA has every right to set the rules for their events, and since the annual April gala has become one of the hottest tickets in town, those rules have had to get tighter and tighter to accommodate bigger and bigger names.
Yet, in a year when the still unsettled status of women in society has been so present in the public mind, it seems tone-deaf not to yield to Thomas’s request to celebrate a milestone in WHCA history.
When Thomas joined the White House beat in 1960, she and her fellow female reporters were welcome to pay their annual $2 dues to the WHCA, but they were barred from attending the annual dinner.
As with all-male bastions like the National Press Club, the dinner was one of those places where Washington newsmakers and journalists drank and smoked and gossiped and passed along those tips that made for above-the-fold stories in tomorrow’s early edition.
Thomas and her some of her female colleagues wanted in to that elite group, and in the spring of 1962 went directly to President Kennedy to argued that “he should not attend the dinner if we couldn’t.” Kennedy agreed, and for the first time in 42 years, women were allowed to join.
Contrary to the fears of her male counterparts, the world did not come to an end, and a dozen years later Thomas became the first female president of the organization. She’s one of only nine women to hold the post in the group’s 98-year history.
Since the purpose of the dinner is to "acknowledge award-winners, present scholarships, and give the press and the president an evening of friendly appreciation," it would seem that giving a little extra space for Thomas to celebrate her professional achievement would not be a hardship. After all, the ballroom at the Washington Hilton seats around 3,000 people.
But the logic seems to go something like this: sell some extra seats to Thomas, and where does Uggie, the dog from The Artist, sit?
Over the last decade, the “nerd prom” of yesteryear has turned into the Charles Atlas of Washington galas. Media outlets buy out whole tables and try to one-up another in packing those precious seats with superstar behinds.
And those toned backsides are increasingly happy to join. “It's a fashionable fly-in for Hollywood types who need a red carpet to be photographed on between Coachella and Cannes,” the Washington Post’s Reliable Source blog noted in 2010. Pre-parties and after-parties have almost outshadowed the main event, and there are probably as many celebrities in attendance as actual reporters.
This could be looked at as a sign that the media, politicians and celebrities have turned into a single megalopolis. The United States of Clooney. It could also be a sign that most DC journalists are, in fact, giant nerds who go bonkers over the idea of meeting Steve Buscemi. Either way, it has increasingly little to do with honoring one’s peers.
This year’s dinner is about a month away, and the WHCA could well change its mind. At the very least, one hopes they have the grace to acknowledge those women who first fought for their place at those tables.