‘It’s keeping me sane’: Salvation at the White House Correspondents’ Jam

Lester Holt (right) performs during the fourth annual White House Correspondents' Jam on April 27, 2018, at The Hamilton in Washington, DC. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Mother Nature Network

“I FEEL LIKE HE LOOKS TALLER ON TV,” Marnie Beale says, her face alight with excitement. As guests file into the dimly lit Hamilton restaurant and music venue on Friday night in Washington, DC, for the White House Correspondents’ Jam, Beale settles down in a seat next to her husband Don, eyeing NBC’s Lester Holt as he mingles with fellow media members across the room. People crowd around to take photos with him. He obliges.

Beale is one of the few non-media people at the packed event. She and her husband work with Horton’s Kids, one of the event hosts, and she’s just happy to be here. She pulls out her cell phone and starts taking pictures of Holt. He’s who she—and everyone, it seems—came to see. Well, in addition of course to Kevin and Michael Bacon, the Bacon Brothers, who’d take the stage as musical headliners for the evening. Chuck Leavell, the longtime Rolling Stones tour keyboardist, was also in the house to perform a song with each band.

But soon, Holt would be onstage, too—playing bass with his band The Rough Cuts just before the Bacons. It’s rare that any journalists could command as much attention as a multi-instrumentalist movie star or a legendary keyboardist but it turns out, the face of NBC Nightly News is also secretly, or not so secretly, a rock star. And he’s not the only journalist who is.

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Preceding The Rough Cuts was Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles and his band, Suspicious Package, followed by CNBC’s senior economics reporter Steve Liesman and his band, The Mooncussers, and then The Wall Street Journal Investigations Editor Mike Siconolfi and his band, The Six Stars. Each of the evening’s four journalist-toting bands smoothly performed covers of classic rock songs; one, The Mooncussers, played original music as well.

“I find a lot of similarities between journalism and music,” says Siconolfi, The Six Stars pianist. “Many things we do at The Wall Street Journal are team efforts. It’s rare that a single reporter is working on a story. It’s really important that everyone is listening to each other and responding to each other and supporting each other. To me, it’s always been fascinating to see the teamwork that’s involved in both [music and journalism].”

Lester and I started this a couple years ago just singing Christmas carols at a holiday party. I said, ‘We should get a band together and just have some fun.’

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The White House Correspondents’ Jam, now in its fourth year, is a private, invitation-only event hosted by Mother Nature Network, of which the Stones’ Leavell is a co-founder. Bands are selected by event organizers through word-of-mouth, though they sometimes approach organizers directly. Lena Dunham introduced New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s band The Sequoias in 2015. Last year, ahead of the first correspondents’ jam since Donald Trump’s election, The Washington Post reported that Leavell “figured that the Fourth Estate needed to blow off steam now more than ever.”

At soundcheck this year, each band practices under the watchful eyes of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac, all immortalized in black-and-white portraits lining the venue walls.

“This is by far the biggest thing we’ve done,” says NBC News producer and editor Chad Bergacs, who serves as the drummer in Holt’s band, The Rough Cuts. The band practices as often as it can, around once every couple weeks, he says. “Lester and I started this a couple years ago just singing Christmas carols at a holiday party. I said, ‘We should get a band together and just have some fun.’”

Their group is made up of about seven NBC people—mostly editors, Bergacs says, hence the band name. Given the number of media bands in tow tonight, Bergacs mentions, “I want to get a battle of the bands together at some point. Maybe we’ll work on that.” The Rough Cuts breeze through a cover of “Gimme Shelter” with Chuck Leavell during soundcheck, with Holt doing a trademark bassist head bob and foot stomp. They later enthusiastically perform the song during their official set. It’s the first song they ever played together—that is, according to the fun facts on the screen next to the stage.

Steve Liesman’s band name is slightly more poetic than Holt’s. Liesman, who has played in Grateful Dead tribute bands since high school and plays guitar with The Mooncussers, used to take trips to Cape Cod every year starting when he was a teenager, and each time he would read Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod. The book details land-based pirates called the mooncussers, who would light fires on the beach to trick ships into thinking they were lighthouses, beckoning them to the shore to pillage them. But the trick didn’t work when the moon was out, and thus they cussed the moon. And thus, Steve Liesman and The Mooncussers were born.

“It’s a very different break from what I do in the high pressure of daily journalism,” Liesman says. He happens to be the only journo in the band, he says, which also includes Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary.

Each of the band-leading journalists loves music and performing, but the hobby is more meaningful to some than it is to others. Tom Toles may have a Pulitzer, but it’s music that is his prize in life. “It’s the only thing that’s saving me now,” he says. “I came to music late. I fell in love and fell hard. It’s the best thing in my life.”

Billboard referred to the jam as ‘the looser, decidedly less political precursor’ to the correspondents’ dinner.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of his band, Suspicious Package, as well as its second year performing at The White House Correspondents’ Jam. Somehow, they’ve had no lineup changes in all these years. “In rock-and-roll history, that has got to be some kind of a record,” Toles says, laughing. It all started when he was talking to fellow journalist Josh Meyer at a party. Meyer said he was thinking of getting a band together and told Toles, “You look like a drummer. You want to play drums?” Toles thought, “How hard could that be?” He had access to a drum kit, so he sat down and taught himself to play. The rest of the band was formed pretty much the same way.

“It’s keeping me sane,” Toles says of playing music, alluding to the fraught nature of contemporary politics.

That’s what the White House Correspondents’ Jam, which takes place the night before the more controversial White House Correspondents’ Dinner, is all about: lifting up journalists and the media, keeping them sane, and showcasing the musical talents of those journalists who we invite into our homes through our screens and newspapers. It’s a night of schmoozing, boozing, and, most notably, journalists forming jam bands. If an attendee doesn’t come away with a scoop, then they might still come away with a selfie with Lester Holt and Kevin Bacon. Ahead of the event, Billboard referred to the jam as “the looser, decidedly less political precursor” to the correspondents’ dinner.

“My feeling is, if you can get people up and dancing, there’s nothing more fun than that,” Toles says. Dance they did.

The pomp and circumstance reaches an uncomfortable level when, towards the event’s conclusion, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes her presence known. Media members, including Holt, greet and hobnob with Sanders like she’s an old friend, not someone they must cover and critique each day. There is a sense that access journalism may assert itself as the order of the evening. In another 24 hours, the annual correspondents’ dinner will give way to criticism of that very dynamic, along with calls for journalists to guard their credibility and for the event itself to cease.

But the correspondents’ jam, while somewhere on the “access” spectrum, is degrees removed from the dinner, which “honors the First Amendment and strong, independent journalism,” according to White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Talev. There are no such claims made about the correspondents’ jam; this is no journalism panel on objectivity or ethics, after all. By this point, the Bacon Brothers are closing out the evening with what’s left of the thinning crowd mostly on the dance floor, and after socializing and exchanging pleasantries, Sanders goes gently into that good night, slipping out of sight.

With that, the night of revelry is just about over. Music may help to give these journalists, pundits, anchors, and reporters a respite from the daily drudge and grind, but the public need not fear—they’ll still be covering the news come Monday. This one bit of clarity at the end of it all: They won’t be quitting their day jobs.

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Kayla Randall is a proud native of New Orleans and lover of Virginia, where she is currently based. She is the City Lights editor at Washington City Paper.