James Carville used to say that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. That may be harsh, but there is one night a year in the nation’s capital when the dogs of politics put on their sequins and tuxedos and rub shoulders with the gorgeous. That annual soiree, called the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, is always a star-studded event, one where a Supreme Court justice can be spotted chatting with Justin Bieber or Steven Spielberg is whispering in the ear of the president.
This year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which takes place on April 27, is sure to be as glamorous as in years past, but the man overseeing it is a slightly unusual one: Fox News Channel chief White House correspondent Ed Henry. A seasoned and award-winning Washington journalist who earned his chops as a reporter for legendary columnist Jack Anderson, Henry is a controversial choice because of his position as Fox News’ man in the Obama White House, where they’ve had a sometimes contentious relationship.
At a White House press conference in October 2011, Henry asked Barack Obama to respond to Mitt Romney’s comment that “if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president.” Obama retorted, on national television: “I didn’t know you were the spokesperson for Mitt Romney.”
But the Queens-born Henry rolls with the punches, presidential and otherwise. “I just think there is probably a unique spotlight put on the Fox correspondent covering Obama, because there has been some back and forth over the last four years—to put it mildly,” he told DuJour in an interview from a vacation in Florida with his wife, a CNN producer, and his two children. “I respect the president, and I think he respects me. My job is to challenge authority. I don’t really have any problems day to day in terms of covering them.”
The White House, for its part, says it has no particular beef with Henry. “Like every other professional journalist who covers the White House, we don’t like every word that Ed has said on camera, but we work with him every day to provide the access and information that he needs to communicate to a sizable audience what’s happening at the White House,” spokesman Josh Earnest told the AP after Obama’s re-election.
Henry’s road to the White House press room wasn’t predetermined. He says his father spent most of his career as a supermarket manager in New York City, and Ed was the first member of his family to go to college. (He attended Siena in New York.) He moved steadily up the press corps’ ranks after arriving in Washington in 1991. After eight years covering the Hill for Roll Call, Henry went on-air at CNN. There he first adopted his trademark dapper look, attracting the attention of AP fashion writer Samantha Critchell, who praised his sartorial signature, a pocket square.
The Mad Men accessory and attention to detail seem to fit Henry’s role as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. In that post, he’s the organizer of a bipartisan social lubricant—a larger-than-life version of an event that was once much more common in D.C. That dinner “is one of those rare occasions when Republicans and Democrats come together,” Henry says. Such events used to be regular occurrences in Washington, where Georgetown doyennes broke out the family silver and china to seat members of both parties beside one another over meals and cocktails. That tradition was lost with the advent of the working wife and the new era of profound political acrimony.
When asked whether he thought the chummy, bipartisan dinner party of yore ought to—or even could—make a return in modern Washington, Henry replies, “I would say there is a very fine line. We as journalists should not be buddy-buddy with people we cover. We have a solemn responsibility to challenge authority, but we shouldn’t reach a point where we can’t have a meal with people we cover without people thinking there is something sinister going on. There was a time when Republicans and Democrats sat down and had meals together without people pointing fingers.”
Henry says the comedic element at the 2013 dinner will match those of previous years, which have seen legendary presidential roasts by the likes of Stephen Colbert, and in some cases have become YouTube sensations. But it’s not all social fluff and laughs, he points out. Through their annual event, the White House Correspondents’ Association raises more than $100,000 every year for budding college journalists. The upcoming dinner will be no different.
“We always get a lot of buzz for our White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Lots of celebrities come, people have a great time, and that’s good,” he says. “But we want to remind people that our organization is standing up for press access at the White House and standing up for needy students. That’s important to us. We should give something back.”