25 Years of Celebrating Causes and Journalism at the White House Correspondents’ Garden Brunch

It started as an intimate gathering in my backyard in the Palisades in 1993, 25 years ago. I created the Garden Brunch as a way to gather friends from New York and LA who were in Washington for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

The first Garden Brunch was a salute to a longtime friend and colleague Stephen Rivers, a Hollywood publicist and political activist well known to politicos on both sides of the aisle and Washington reporters. After the invites went out, I was surprised by the amount of RSVPs we received from legends like Tim Russert to Bush 41 White House aide Anna Perez as well as many TV and print journalists.

Late into the party I got a call on my house phone. A voice on the line said, “A secured package is on the way.” A few moments later none other than Barbra Streisand walked in accompanied by the great songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman. There were no cameras or paparazzi in those days.

We soon realized the gathering had so much political wattage that we should use this platform to help others while celebrating great Washington journalism. We decided to bring in more than just the country’s top anchors and reporters, but also activists, celebrities, and government leaders, to advocate for their causes.

As part of the weekend, the Garden Brunch has always been about celebrating the free press. And we aim to stay true to our original goal of creating a gathering space for journalists, politicos from both sides of the aisle, and celebrities to mingle prior to the main event. The brunch also provides an opportunity for many of the new faces making their White House Correspondents’ Weekend debut to meet their dinner sponsors.

The Fourth Estate has been well represented at the Garden Brunch. Guests have included Greta Van Susteren, Rupert Murdoch, Wolf Blitzer, Arianna Huffington, David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, Bret Baier, April Ryan and Gayle King.

Over the years, the event has maintained a bipartisan spirit as presidential administrations have come and gone and the brunch crowd has continued to grow.

One of my all-time favorite moments from the Garden Brunch has to be getting the opportunity to introduce Captain Richard Phillips, who had been captured by Somali pirates, to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who had coordinated his rescue at sea. Another favorite was watching Matthew Morrison, the star of Glee, joining the hottest boy band of the year, The Jonas Brothers, to advocate for finding a cure for epilepsy.

In 2011, the event moved to its new location, the historic Beall-Washington House in Georgetown, the former residence of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Mark and Sally Ein, who have since become co-hosts of the event, now own the home which was the location of many scenes in Steven Spielberg’s film, The Post.

Celebrity spotting at the Brunch doesn’t disappoint. The biggest stars of the day that have been invited to Washington, DC for the weekend often make a pre-dinner appearance at the Garden Brunch.

Since 2017, the dinner has been a lower-key affair due to the change in the White House, which has translated to fewer celebrities making the trek to Washington. Notable guests at the Brunch in recent years have included cast members from HBO’s VEEP, Helen Mirren, Bryan Cranston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tony Goldwyn, the cast of Netflix’s House of Cards, Bridget Moynahan, Gerard Butler, Lindsay Lohan, Elle Macpherson, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson, Kris Jenner and Woody Harrelson. Luminaries and business leaders have included Travis Kalanick, Joanna Coles, Kevin Plank, Biz Stone, Eric Schmidt, Sheila Johnson and Yuri Milner.

My favorite guests have always been Greta Van Susteren and her husband John Coale. You know her as a TV host, but she is the most loyal friend and has always brought in interesting celebrities who helped us draw attention to our causes. Over the years she has brought everyone from Kim Kardashian and Todd Palin to Lindsay Lohan and Kris Jenner.

Other Garden Brunch co-hosts over the years have included Hilary Rosen, Alex Castellanos, Steve McMahon, Kevin Sheekey, Anita Dunn, Bill Knapp, David Adler, Franco Nuschese, Steve and Jean Case, Constance Milstein, Fred Humphries and Rupert Murdoch’s then-wife Wendi.

The brunch has honored several prestigious organizations in its 25 years with a focus on causes that are making a significant difference in people’s lives. Recently, that list of organizations has included CURE Epilepsy, The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Blue Star Families, Dog Tag Bakery, Yellow Ribbons United, and NS2 Serves.

This year, we highlighted Wells Fargo’s veteran home donation program and NS2 Serves’ veteran training and hiring programs. The biggest surprise of the event came when ABC News Correspondent Bob Woodruff presented Ret. Army Staff Sergeant Dominic Perrotte with a 100% mortgage-free house. Perrotte, who completed 3 tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and was wounded in 2012 when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb, was awarded the home after completing the Wells Fargo and Military Warriors Support Foundation’s Homes4WoundedHeroes’ three-year financial mentoring program.

Other individuals and organizations have been acknowledged for their contributions as well. In 2017, Democracy Fund president Joe Goldman received the Visionary Award for his work in supporting independent journalists. At the 2015 Garden Brunch, American Sniper widow, Taya Kyle, received the Champion Award for her work on behalf of veterans’ families. We are proud to be the only White House Correspondents Weekend event to highlight a non-journalism cause.

Because it’s a brunch, the food being served is very important and the spread at past events has created buzz of its own. From Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne of Georgetown Cupcakes, who always donate their finest cupcakes, to the popular donut wall, to specialty cocktails, to the necessary espresso bar that keeps guests buzzing through the weekend, the food at the Garden Brunch has often been the talk of the town.

We also attempt to have fun with social media while spreading the word about important causes. Guests have been invited to write their thoughts on Microsoft PPI displays. Zignal Labs has shared real-time analytics about #WHCD chatter through stunning visualizations on multi-screen displays. A livestream of the event has been broadcast online and also covered by C-SPAN. And guests are always encouraged to share their experiences using the #GardenBrunch and #WHCD hashtags.

It’s an honor to host the Garden Brunch and to be part of this exciting weekend of putting a spotlight on the importance of journalism in America. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a special event, and I speak on behalf of my co-hosts in saying that we look forward to being part of the celebration again next year.

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