We held the party for my new book, Traffic, at Umberto’s Clam House, by the office of our new news organization, Semafor. Umberto’s is best known as the site of a notorious 1972 mob hit — “they blew him down in a clam bar in New York,” Bob Dylan sang of Joey Gallo. I’d worried the space was too small, but it was perfectly packed and noisy, with blue oil paintings of crabs on the walls. I broke off a conversation with CNN president Chris Licht to take a call from a recently fired anchor from another network. When I came back our executive editor Gina Chua began the short program by spilling who I’d been talking to. I mumbled my way through the relevant thanks, finished, and realized I’d forgotten to thank my wife Liena, who half-wrote the book with me in conversations and edits. I asked my kids whether they thought this was a problem. They informed me that it was, and so I got back on a chair to issue a correction.
The room was full of my book’s subjects — the earliest editors at BuzzFeed and Gawker, and my colleagues at BuzzFeed News during its great run. About half of them now work for the New York Times. The great English investigative journalist Heidi Blake, a Pulitzer finalist there, happened to be in town to finish her first New Yorker piece. Arianna Huffington turned up late and closed the party out. The book, as I told her, begins with her looking like a clueless interloper on the downtown new-media scene, and ends with her looking like one of the few people who knew what they were doing.
Like everything my co-founder Steve Clemons touches, Semafor’s Friday night party kicking off the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner drew an iconic Washington crowd: members of the Senate and the House, the CEOs of Axel Springer and Vox Media, and some ambassadors. The Norwegian envoy assured me that the previous week’s Succession had, indeed, been filmed on location in Romsdalen. And like everything these days: everyone we invited showed up. On time. And stayed, listening to music that an old friend informed me was too good for this crowd. I was afraid the fire marshals would shut it down. I was perhaps most starstruck by Heather Cox Richardson, a liberal American historian who is the most successful writer on Substack, despite her lack of Twitter self-promotion. She spends most of her time in coastal Maine, so I was surprised to see her in the DC swirl. She told me she likes to observe, but doesn’t inhale. Most of the guests were gone by 10 p.m., but the afterparty was still going when I retreated upstairs at midnight. The location was my partner Justin Smith’s (no relation) home in Kalorama. It’s protected by Secret Service because he’s across the street from a former president. I stay there when I’m in town (saving money for our startup, of course).
Saturday’s main event, aside from the actual dinner, is something called the Garden Brunch, a thirty-year institution held at the vast home of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. It’s colder than I expected, so I borrow a sporty blue jacket from Justin, who is slightly taller and substantially more stylish than I am, and walk over looking like I’m wearing my father’s clothes. The brunch always reminds me of the Iraq era, when I first came to Washington: we were eating canapés, we learned, for the troops. During the Trump years, these events turned out also to be in honor of the free press — us! This year Maryland governor Wes Moore, a star of an extremely strong next generation of Democrats, spoke, and the actor Liev Schreiber shared his thoughts on patriotism.
Oh. Was this supposed to be about the black-tie dinner itself? I went regularly for a time — it’s an incredibly source-rich environment — and was there in 2011, when Obama, wired as he waited for news from the special forces raid on Osama’s Pakistan compound, took it out on Donald Trump in the audience. It was hilarious at the time. This year, like much of Biden’s presidency, blew low expectations out of the water. The president had good material which he delivered pretty well. The best were at his own expense, but he also cracked that the Fox News team was “here because they couldn’t say no to a free meal” after their massive payout to Dominion Voting Systems. But startups can’t just get tables at the dinner, and so I got to escape to Makan, a new Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights, with Dave Weigel.
But the best room I was in the whole week was probably the first car of the 2 p.m. Amtrak back to New York on Sunday. Amtrak’s First Class is impossible to explain — there is just no reason to pay extra for it, so you’re either there because first class travel is in your contract, you take the train a lot and got an upgrade (my case) or because your flight was canceled and there were no other seats. My car was like the inside of a television set: Licht, the CNN boss, was in 7F, not far from Fox News host Martha MacCallum. The liberal writer Molly Jong-Fast, 11A, tweeted bitterly about Fox News host Steve Doocy, across the way in 13D. CNBC’s Jim Cramer had 13A. CNN’s Dana Bash sat across from me in 14D. I’d never met Doocy, though many years ago I wrote some forgotten piece about Fox and he spent some time on air lambasting me, which I found delightful. In person, he was equally charming. I suggested he have me on Fox and Friends to talk about my book. He asked if it contained recipes, and when informed him it didn’t, demurred. On the way out, Cramer tipped the porter with a handful of twenties and we all headed out into the rain.
This article is taken from The Spectator’s June 2023 World edition.