The Dirty Politics Behind Tammy Haddad’s White House Correspondents’ Brunch

Some people are feeling the sting of Tammy Haddad‘s mobster-like tactics this year as emails go unreturned and guests who’ve been attending her White House Correspondents’ Garden Brunch for years are getting the cold shoulder. As the invitation says, the party supports CURE Epilepsy and the Miss America Foundation — no doubt, incredibly worthy causes, especially the first one.

“I’ve been to every one of her parties and I’ve written a check for every one of her fucking charities,” groused one ignored journalist who wasn’t invited this year after being a steadfast guest at the annual party for many years. No explanation offered.

The party, like many in Washington, is a cozy mix of politicians, aides, operatives socialites and journalists. Speaking of charity, last year President Obama‘s then-aide David Axelrod, now an MSNBC Contributor, and his wife, Susan, came to the party. (The Axelrod’s have a daughter who has epilepsy.) Actress Lindsay Lohan, who gets arrested every once in awhile, was there, as was supermodel Elle Macpherson.

“I dropped out of the whole thing when Obama got elected and I began to despise the whole Politico-MSNBC nexus,” said a guest who has attended Tammy’s soirée over the years. “Too ass kissy for me. And the sucking up to Axelrod’s wife? Made me want to puke. I honestly can’t even stand being around it, especially when I think of all the people I genuinely like who I never get to see because I have no time. And I’m hanging out with tools instead? No way.”

After being off the list for many years, this year Carol Joynt, Editor-at-Large for Washingtonian, received a coveted invite. One of party’s 10 hosts, Mark Ein, invited her. But on Thursday she got bumped because she had not RSVP’d properly and was told that “no exceptions” could be made due to “security reasons.”

Joynt’s reaction: “I’m laughing. What etiquette book do they use? The Salahis?”

She said her interests in attending were never wholly about the party. “I never planned to write about the brunch in the first place,” she said. “I didn’t consider it a story. My interest in attending was to see what the event designers did with Katharine Graham’s house, because Mark had told me about it before. I’ve only been once before, when it was at the Haddad home, and I found it too crowded and only OK. It is an example of the celebrity wrangling and idolatry that is at the root of the disquiet among the ranks of the WHCA. This year they bit back at the people who want to make their dinner all about Hollywood.”

As another journalist told me, “Hmmm might not be the best source on this one because I haven’t been invited in a few years. But, is anything this weekend really ‘important’ to attend? I guess you’d miss having an awkward conversation in the bathroom line with some kid from Glee, but it’s not like careers rise and fall based on party attendance.”

We spoke to a wide variety of journalists who were not invited to Tammy’s party this year as well as some who were and will attend. FishbowlDC is among the uninvited. In fact, we were pointedly told we could not cover this afternoon’s Garden Brunch despite providing coverage to readers for approximately the last seven years. Unfortunately, I can’t share all the gritty details due to an off-the-record agreement. But later in the story I can tell you what happened last year when I received an invitation and went. As you can see by our stories, the party has received largely glowing coverage. Last year, when I covered it, was no exception.

But truthfully, not everyone is disgusted by the tactics Tammy employs when deciding who to keep and who to scratch off the list. Janet Donovan, a publicist and blogger who runs the Hollywood on the Potomac blog, has gone for the past 20 years. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I have been going to Tammy’s famous brunch since there were just a few tables out on her back lawn,” Donovan told FBDC. “That mushroomed over the years to so many guests that she moved the event to Mark Ein’s house a few years ago, the spacious manse in Georgetown formerly owned by Washington Post’s Katherine Graham which upped the capacity and comfort zone.

“Definitely a not to be missed schmoozefest – the crowd is eclectic, fun, and yes, even the celebrities make your head turn……..from Lindsay Lohan to Kim Kardashian. No matter what you say or think about the celebrity factor, it’s terribly amusing.”

Like Donovan, those who go know they must never write anything lest it not be glowing. Do so at your own peril. For the past few years press has been penned into a designated area outside the house. They are allowed in after, but once they’re in, the “guidance” is that the festivities are off the record and tweeting is discouraged.

“In so far as all the hoopla surrounding the Correspondents weekend is important to cover, then Tammy’s brunch is too, it’s an integral piece of the festivities,” said a journalist who has attended a handful of times in recent years. “But everyone knows the pictures are the best part, so if you’re wandering around with your reporter’s notebook out looking for scandal, you’re in the wrong place. My sense was always that Tammy wanted lighthearted coverage and fun people around, and if you knew her and you could offer that, then you were in. Is it perfectly journalistic? No. Are you going to get in wearing jeans and a T-shirt and lugging a TV camera? Probably not. But it’s her party, so it’s up to Tammy how she wants to play it.”

Bottom line? Reporters who play by Tammy’s rules return. Those who don’t get the axe. Even sometimes those who do, inexplicably, find themselves on the chopping block. The thing about Washington is reporters, even and especially gossip reporters, know this intuitively and willingly abide by the rules, even FishbowlDC. See here and here and here and here and here.

Back in 2006, Garrett Graff, now Editor of Washingtonian and the first editor of FishbowlDC, covered the brunch. He made it sound almost poetic.

You couldn’t miss the brunch hosted by Tammy Haddad and friends Saturday. Under a beautiful blue sky, the valet parking backed up more than a block as people crowded to the event in their best festive garden party attire–it was a more Volvo than BMW crowd.

That was Joe Wilson in Hawaiian shirt and sandals; Chuck Todd in a Cuban shirt and linen pants;Roxanne Roberts in a Las Vegas t-shirt; Bob Shrum holding court at the dining table; Ed Henry sans Blackberry; Tucker Carlson sans bow tie (and sporting some hair so wild it’s bordering on a mullet); and Annie Groer with a fancy-schmancy and totally impratically large purse.

Gossip and feature writers are an interesting lot at Tammy’s party. I asked Donovan if she feels funny about never being able to cover a party like Tammy’s in anything but a positive light. And if she didn’t, would she be invited back? I also asked about her “earning” a right to be there. After all, if you’re nice to Tammy all year long and don’t ever write anything negative about her (in other words, you don’t cover her like an actual gossip writer in New York or Los Angeles might) you’re in.

“I’m not sure about the ‘negative coverage’ question,” Donovan said. “I try to avoid negative energy. … kind of a drain. As to the ‘earn’ it question, not really sure either, don’t forget that I have been here a while so many of the hosts are also personal friends.”

Said a reporter on condition of anonymity: “It’s sad, but inevitable. Reporters are almost at a disadvantage in this town because there are too many of them so they end up having to play by the rules dictated by those providing the material. A press pen isn’t ideal — and it’s not exactly a great way to engender good karma with the Fourth Estate — but it’s hard to see this type of thing going away.”

Some compare Tammy to the Don Corleone of party throwing. “I actually tried for years not to go,” said a former guest who has gone for the past decade but wasn’t invited back this year. “Believe it or not, this is a pretty civil town,” the individual told us on condition of anonymity. “But you have douchebags running it who are unfortunately duplicitous. It’s just not good, ewww.”

A journalist described the party and Tammy like this: “She’s kind of living on this very old reputation, this crowd she seems to manage. Weak people can be manipulated easily. The fear of being alienated is the glue that holds this town together.”

Many people who agreed to speak to FishbowlDC for this story did so on the strictest condition of anonymity. They may despise how Tammy operates, but they don’t want her to know it. Few in Washington want to be seen as caring about the party too much. Few want to cross her, even if she did treat them poorly, and even if they believe she doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of their lives.

“She wants all this attention for this brunch, but she treats those who attend badly,” said another longtime attendee who, as of this writing late Friday night, still hadn’t received an invitation. The person was trying to get into the brunch this week, but the outcome was iffy. As it was last year for a bunch of people Tammy supposedly considered to be “friends.” On the morning of the brunch, relayed our source, she called and said, “I’ve got too many people, you can’t come.”

As for last year, here’s what happened to yours truly. A host I will refer to as The Reasonable One invited me but lectured me beforehand. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to write anything “mean” about Tammy. I was told there were people who were not comfortable with my presence there, but they were going to let me in anyhow providing I did as I was told. I bristled at the journalistic principles brushing up against my soul, but pushed them aside for what I thought might be the greater good of going to the party and developing my sources. And yes I’m being serious, but also overly dramatic. Another part of me was like, who cares? It’s one party.

On the morning of the party, a blonde woman I will refer to as Queen of the Clipboard Nazis, phoned and said it was urgent that we speak. I didn’t even know she was involved with the party, but immediately thought I was being uninvited. So I did what a real gossip reporter would do and didn’t bother to call her back. If they wanted to disinvite me, they’d have to do it at the gate and then I’d write about it. I was half hoping that would happen.

When I arrived I approached the check-in desk with some trepidation. No one wants to be told they’re not on the list — it’s embarrassing. Sure enough, a less powerful Clipboard Nazi told me I wasn’t on the list and directed me to a man in watermelon-hued trousers. I was kind of laughing to myself about the ridiculousness of it all — I’m hardly a socialite — but I proceeded to chat amiably with the Watermelon Police. He was a smooth operator. He asked who I was and who specifically had invited me. He didn’t even flinch. “Right this way,” he said, leading me to the cluster of journalists penned up outside the house.

Soon enough, a journalist friend grabbed me and wanted me to come inside. It was packed, a real mob scene. Queen of the Clipboard Nazis approached and said, “Can I talk to you?” I was flustered. “What’s up? About what?” I replied, a slight impatience in my voice. I worried about losing my friend in the crowd. She told me she really needed to speak with me and pulled me aside in the foyer. I felt like a child who was about to be scolded. Which was, in fact, what happened. “There are some people who are uncomfortable with your presence here,” she said, eerily repeating almost verbatim what the other host, The Reasonable One, had said. She proceeded to lecture me about the party and Tammy and said, “You and Tammy really need to have a drink sometime. We really need to set up a time for you two to do that.” Tammy has henchmen? I had no idea. I told the Queen of the Clipboard Nazis that Tammy could write or call me anytime she wants and schedule a drink. She began to launch into more of the lecture when I interrupted her and said, “You’re actually being rude. I am an invited guest to this party and I don’t need you giving me a lecture I’ve already heard and agreed to. So if you’ll excuse me…” She looked horrified. I walked off into the crowd and immediately felt dirty, like even being here was selling my journalistic soul. My next thought: ‘what do I have to do to get a Bloody Mary around here?’

In a few minutes, at 10 a.m., “press” will assemble outside the Beall-Washington House, Katharine Graham‘s former home, for another Tammy fest. They’ll do as their told. They’ll write something light and bubbly that will keep Tammy and her posse pleased. Come next year they’ll be invited back to repeat the whole process all over again. Journalism be damned. Fun times? Indeed.

Correction: We previously stated that Susan Axelrod has epilepsy. It’s actually their daughter. We’ve updated the above to reflect the correction.