The Joke’s on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
When the president is calling the free press ‘the enemy of the people,’ journalists need to be protecting their position, not exposing it to misinterpretation.
As I write this Monday afternoon, we’re in the third phase of chest-beating over a comedian playing blue at Saturday evening’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
It’s an annual affair, both the dinner and the criticism, but this year we’re cycling through phases of post-partum regret faster than ever before, from “it’s all in the spirit of fun” to “don’t take yourself so seriously” to “it’s time to get a musical guest, or a juggler, or maybe a mime.”
To recap, Daily Show regular Michelle Wolf is taking heat for crossing an invisible line of acceptable criticism of the powers that be, especially those powers sitting a few feet away. There were the usual jokes about Trump who for the second year chose to be with the people in the heartland rather than speak, as most presidents do, at the dinner. In his place was Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There’s no doubt Sanders lies and does so robotically without the decency to reveal a flicker of regret the way predecessor Sean Spicer did.
Still there’s Sanders in her nice blue dress, having agreed to fill in the significant gap left by the president’s absence, absorbing incoming with a stiff upper lip, or smokey eye as Wolf would have it. It’s fair to ask whether going beyond the maddening way Sanders does her job to comment on her makeup, her similarity to the ugliest character in The Handmaid’s Tale, and playing the Uncle Tom card makes a point against her, or the press countenancing it.
We want the president, or at least his stand-in, to drink our wine, eat our rare filet, laugh at the human condition, and leave understanding the roles each branch plays. That outcome may be one reason there was no skit entitled Stormy Weather at this year's Gridiron which the president and First Lady attended. The same principle works for the WHCD: We want Sanders to stop lying. We don’t want to humiliate her and have her go away hurt.
In fairness to Wolf, she was only doing as others have: acting as our surrogate to tweak people in power to the point of debasing them—for being in charge, for treating us like children, for withholding the truth. It’s inevitable that every so often a performer will cross an invisible line. When it happens, it’s inevitable that the organization will feign surprise. It’s also inevitable that the outrage will blow over. The dinner creates an elite problem over an elite affair that will be forgotten before the press starts competing for next year’s celebrity guests.
But this time, there’s no room for error. Wolf was mild compared to Don Imus’ infamous screed shaming then-president Bill Clinton for, in the radio talker’s telling, having sex on astroturf in the back of his pickup truck with Hillary looking on.
But the ground under the press has shifted since 1996, so that Wolf’s screed played into Trump’s already ferocious battle against the enemy of the people in which he attacks the foundations of democracy from the courts to the FBI to the independent press. Until now, the president has had virtually no evidence to back up his allegations but he’s glomming on big time to the “bust” of a dinner as Exhibit A. And it could play to a wider group than just his base coming as it does with video of the press hobnobbing with those it’s supposed to cover in the depths of the swamp, in formal dress, painful footwear, and sweaty ambition. It’s a sign of the time that this year’s guest of note was Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti.
Trump described the evening as an “embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy ‘comedian’ totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
For once, he has a point. The retort that Wolf was no worse than Trump, an excuse so overused kids employ it to justify not doing their homework, is lame. He goes low so we go low? And there’s no percentage in doing it. Ask Marco Rubio and Jim Comey how fruitful it is to stoop to Trump’s level. Because Trump introduced the p-word into politics doesn’t mean it should be uttered from the podium of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Trade associations have raucous conventions all the time but the press is a constitutionally protected institution that needs to guard its position, not expose it to misinterpretation.
As it became obvious she was bombing, Wolf muttered an aside aimed at the WHCA saying, “Shoulda done more research before you got me to do this.” But not vice versa. Bombing in Washington will likely boost Wolf's career. After Imus, the correspondents’ association wrote a formal letter of apology to the president and Clinton’s press secretary unsuccessfully pleaded with C-Span not to rebroadcast the dinner.
That hasn’t happened yet here. Association president Margaret Talev, who gave a fine speech about a free press, defended Wolf as a talented comedian with a message to deliver while also lamenting that “the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of the mission” of a free press.
Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway, another target of Wolf, who said she had the perfect name in “CONway,” and should be felled by a tree, responded that the whole thing proved that the press is not out to get the story but to get Trump.
That’s not so, but why offer up ammunition? Talev’s explanation didn’t stop talk of overhauling the event, and allaying criticism that it’s an excuse for the press to celebrate ourselves and get high-ranking officials and Hollywood stars (the cast of Downton Abbey and Veep have come) to join us for a night on the town. The arms race to bribe celebrities with Oscar-like goodie bags, suites at the Four Seasons, and first-class flights has abated a bit since Trump boycotted the dinner and word traveled that the dinner was not that hot. George Clooney said he was surprised when his car pulled up to the Washington Hilton and not the White House.
To compensate, in recent years, there’s more stage time given to the awarding of journalism scholarships. It’s hardly enough. That $100,000 is dwarfed by the millions media companies spend on a night that politicians see mostly as an obligation, celebrities mostly as a disappointment.
The press sees it as something to apologize for. This president just isn’t into it, except as something to use against the press.
On the night Washington was in black-tie for Wolf’s lame routine, nine reporters were killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul. That’s who we need to honor. Talev admitted the evening’s performer didn’t support the mission of the press. Next year, the group needs to choose one that will, or call the whole thing off.