This week has been all about the election, the US presidential election that is. It is 18 months away but already the race is sending out sparks and popping like a newly lit fire. On the one hand, there’s Hillary. She takes a trip by van across ‘the real America’ — a near-faultless launch of her campaign, everyone agrees, until she eats a meal in a fast food restaurant and forgets to tip. Then there’s the Republican field, heading for a dozen strong, but perhaps ending up whittled down to just Jeb Bush. This state of affairs caused one frustrated challenger to complain: ‘The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families.’ The winner will spend around $2.5 billion getting elected. This is a ridiculous amount, I say to one Republican party elder. ‘No,’ he says, ‘It’s less than the US spends on marketing pet food in any given year.’ He has a point.
Among political hacks in this town, Richard Ben Cramer’s brilliant 1,000-page account of the 1988 presidential race, What It Takes, has talismanic status. It was such a labour to produce that he didn’t get around to publishing it until after the 1992 race, so unsurprisingly it didn’t sell. But word of mouth built and every four years it inspires a new generation of campaign journalists. Ben Cramer was in Joe Biden’s living room when he resolved to run for president (in 1988 — he may run again now); he was with George Bush (senior) when he flubbed the opening pitch at a Texas Rangers game; he got inside the candidates’ heads because often he was right next to them at their moments of crisis or decision. Everyone covering a campaign since has tried to recapture what Ben Cramer had. ‘You’re too late,’ a veteran correspondent for a foreign TV channel told me when I asked if we could get close to candidates making early pilgrimages to Iowa or New Hampshire. ‘Maybe a year ago, but even then…’ Candidates are terrified of the unscripted moments that genuine access brings. And anyway, foreign broadcasters are what Alastair Campbell used to call NVTV: No Votes TV.
We are in Washington to talk to officials for a Panorama on the western hostages killed by the so-called Islamic State. But we happen also to be there for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a glorious chance to rubber-neck. President Obama’s jokes are funnier than the professional comedian’s (not unusual, I’m told). His advisers asked him if he had a bucket list of things he wanted to do before leaving office, he says. ‘Well I have something that rhymes with bucket.’ Immigration reform. Buck-it. Climate change? Buck-it. And so on. Despite the laughs he gets, he looks bored and unhappy to be there. He is said to hold the national media in contempt. If so, it shows. The dinner itself has grown from a small and staid affair into what US TV networks now headline ‘Hollywood meets Washington’. The before and after parties are the serious networking events. At one, free glass of chardonnay in hand, we are introduced to someone when a member of President Obama’s inner circle walks in. The man we’re speaking to breaks off mid-sentence, mid-word, and hurries over to her side. She ignores him and strides over to greet one of the stars of Homeland. Our new acquaintance returns and, without apology or explanation, seamlessly resumes the conversation at the same point.
The social climbing and status anxiety are sent up in a YouTube video by the actor Tim Simons. He plays Jonah in Veep, the achingly funny political satire by the British writer Armando Iannucci, an American Thick of It (which he also created). We spot him at the dinner and diffidently approach but Simons doesn’t mind. He’s seldom recognised in Hollywood; in Washington he’s a star, and he loves it. There’s one problem: in the show his character — a lowly and put-upon assistant — is forever getting his balls cupped in an aggressive, slightly weird alpha-male move by the Vice President’s chief of staff. ‘That’s, like, a thing now,’ says Simons nervously, explaining the strange desire of some people to do this to him in real life. We assure him our only interest is in getting a selfie.
The next day, coffee with Carol from The West Wing (the TV show not the actual White House): the actress Melissa Fitzgerald, who plays the assistant to presidential press secretary C.J. Cregg. She now runs Justice for Vets, a charity that campaigns to keep military veterans out of jail by establishing dedicated courts to hear their cases, a division of the specialist drugs courts in the US judicial system. Twenty-two vets commit suicide every day, she tells me, quoting official figures. That is because some vets have a hard time adjusting when they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. The figure also reflects the sheer number of men and women who have served in America’s many foreign wars. It’s a reminder of the hugely consequential event behind the hoopla and spectacle of the presidential race just getting under way.
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent.