Spot the Difference: Pompeo's Concerning Dinner Parties vs. Obama's 'Intellectual Escapes'

May 20, 2020

Media outlets are furiously investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's dinner parties with politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. They note that some "officials" have "raised concerns" about the "elite taxpayer-funded dinners."

Guests at these controversial dinners included country star Reba McEntire, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Chick-fil-A chairman Dan Cathy. Here's how NBC reported on the alleged scandal:

WASHINGTON — As federal workers file out of the State Department at the end of a Washington workday, an elite group is often just arriving in the marbled, flag-lined lobby: Billionaire CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political heavyweights and ambassadors arrive in evening attire as they're escorted by private elevator to dinner with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Until the coronavirus shut them down in March, the gatherings were known as "Madison Dinners"—elaborate, unpublicized affairs that Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo, began in 2018 and held regularly in the historic Diplomatic Reception Rooms on the government's dime.

Democratic lawmakers are also investigating. "I am concerned by allegations that the Secretary appears to be using those taxpayer resources to host large domestic-focused political gatherings that serve little-to-no foreign policy purpose," wrote Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee who was indicted on federal corruption charges in 2015 for accepting gifts from a campaign donor.

Pompeo responded in beastly fashion on Wednesday, telling reporters that he wouldn't accept "ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted."

The media's reporting on Pompeo's fancy dinners with elite attendees has, for some reason, been slightly different than the media's reporting on the fancy dinners President Barack Obama regularly hosted during his second term.

"At Dinner Tables, a Restless Obama Finds an Intellectual Escape," read the New York Times headline in July 2014. The article describes a series of late-night dinner gatherings with business leaders and celebrities that offered "a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Mr. Obama may keep after he leaves the White House."

Attendees at these dinners included filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, Bono, architect Renzo Piano, and members of "Italy's intellettuali." Many of the guests, according to the Times, "have been financial supporters of Mr. Obama's campaigns." And yet the article, for some reason, does not mention any concern—from "officials" or otherwise—about the use of taxpayer dollars to finance these intimate gatherings with campaign donors.

Instead, the article contains numerous quotes praising Obama's intellectual curiosity. "It keeps him fresh," said White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. "It gives him new ideas to think about." Piano, recounting a recent dinner party with Obama at a 15th-century manor surrounding the U.S. ambassador's residence in Rome, told the Times: "He is a curious man, and even the president of America is sometimes struggling to explore, to understand, to search."

Obama was president, of course, while Pompeo is merely the secretary of state. Perhaps that explains the difference in coverage. Or maybe Pompeo's guests weren't as fashionable. What else could explain it?