WASHINGTON - There were two big questions on everyone's minds in Washington last week: What to do about income inequality and how to get a seat at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner to hobnob with all the swells.
It isn't news that the annual spring rite has jumped the shark. The only thing Tom Brokaw and Sarah Palin agree on is that it defines wretched excess. At this year's edition, which took place Saturday, the new wrinkle was that the president of the association vowed to return the gathering to its roots, whatever those are. His innovation was a video on the enduring principles and the important mission of the group, although this sincere appeal to the collective civic sense only served as a signal for people to resume networking.
The bright spot in the evening was the association's apology for a dark spot in its history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the first black correspondent into the Oval Office, but the WHCA denied him membership. The reporter, Harry McAlpin, wasn't there to hear the apology - he died in 1985 - but his son was.
Otherwise, it was a much dimmed affair, as if the fizz that's gone out of President Barack Obama's poll numbers had gone out of the night as well. In the heady days of hope and change, Steven Spielberg came to dinner. This year, it was the cast of the prime-time soap opera "Scandal," which features a president who is having an almost public affair with his top consultant under the nose of a power-hungry first lady. The fictional president stole the election and smothered a Supreme Court justice in her hospital bed, and that's just a sampling of the body count on "Scandal." It makes "House of Cards" look like Sunday morning on C-Span.
Even a little off his game, Obama elicited some chuckles. We laugh, sometimes for real, sometimes nervously, because we are all in on the joke. A few years ago, Stephen Colbert tested our sense of humor by cutting too close to the bone; he was judged by Washington insiders to have bombed, yet his performance went viral with the rest of the country.
Obama, just back from Malaysia, joked about the lengths he had to go to get coverage on CNN, whose reporters, he said, were still searching for their table. He warned Fox News how much it will miss him given how hard it will be to convince Americans that Hillary Clinton "was born in Kenya." Self-deprecation always is safe. He showed a video that instantly had technical difficulties. He called out for someone to fix it, and from the wings appeared Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary who recently resigned in the aftermath of the Obamacare rollout mess.
It wasn't his best performance, but he was much better than the paid entertainment, Joel McHale, the star, apparently, of the NBC series "Community," who went for Las Vegas insult-shtick, joking about Nancy Pelosi's face, Lindsey Graham's sexuality and Donald Trump's hair.
The weekend long ago turned into a mutually assured lovefest for media bigwigs and celebrities (or their cousins, the merely notorious), with a few members of Congress and administration figures thrown in for cover. Oh, for the olden days, when the news media and government officials gathered to share steam-table roast beef in black tie and new shoes in the hopes of feeling each other's pain. Now it is a competition to "get" the boldest-face name from outside the Beltway, someone who will make the cameras pop on the red carpet (yes, we have one).
Actual reporters have a hard time getting in as their publications reserve the 2,600 tickets for the famous. The tilt toward the ludicrous got its start when a reporter from the Baltimore Sun invited Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall, who had her 15 seconds of fame for her bit part in the Iran-Contra scandal. That's when things began to degenerate. Attention shifted away from inviting a highly placed source a reporter wanted to cultivate toward competing for the simply famous who might have some connection, however thin, to public policy. Sean Penn helped Haiti (and smashed a phone while he was here), Spielberg made an Oscar-worthy movie about Abraham Lincoln, and George Clooney brought attention to genocide in Darfur.
We may have hit bottom last year - or at least I hope we did - when the cast of "Duck Dynasty" was the big "get." It was a spectacular display of self-loathing to invite people who make a virtue of hating Washington - and, we later found out, anyone who isn't like them, beginning with gays and blacks.
To maintain a veneer of a sense of mission, the association awards scholarships, the winners of which are brought on stage for a hug from the first lady. At that point in the evening, we journalists act as if we are curing world hunger when the amount given wouldn't cover valet parking for the evening.
The dinner sought to rebrand itself as a charity dinner after Brokaw appeared on "Meet the Press" in 2012 and said that any event where Lindsay Lohan was the center of attention had lost its way. It remains just as clueless.
OK, I still love going, if only for a glimpse of Sen. Ted Cruz shedding his camouflage as a tea party patriot for full black tie or to watch how New Jersey's governor takes incoming shots (he won for most hits), including from the president, who lamented how bad gridlock is in Washington and asked, "What'd we do to [----] off Chris Christie so bad?"
If there is a shred of self-knowledge implicit in the evening, it is this: Alone, we journalists are nothing; to be noticed, we must import others. At one time, the joke was the high-low contrast between us and Ozzy Osbourne and Marla Maples. Now we swim in the same pond. Anyone who stumbled across the bacchanal on television would be reminded of why they hate Washington.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.