Tom Brokaw is probably right that the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner, now in its 99th year, has evolved into “just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles,” as the former NBC News anchor complained recently.
But, hey, if you’re a profile-elevating narcissist—and, with the exception of no-show Brokaw, who wasn’t one last night at the Washington Hilton?—it’s among the most gratifying evenings to be had in the nation’s capital. That said, a dinnertime screening of a satirical video that featured House of Cards star Kevin Spacey and a bunch of media types and politicians—including John McCain, Mike Bloomberg, Charlie Rose, and White House Correspondents’ Association President Ed Henry of Fox News, supposedly cutting deals over seating arrangements—probably made Brokaw’s point.
As in previous years, 2013’s official rite of spring for Washington featured celebrities, politicians, and media types basking in one another’s reflected power and glory—Barbra Streisand, Nicole Kidman, and Gerard Butler mingling with the likes of Eric Cantor, Ray LaHood, and Chuck Todd—and confirming everyone’s importance, charm, and beauty.
Then, of course, there’s the command performance by the president of the United States, who, despite being the most powerful human being on the planet, is compelled every year to put on a tuxedo, sit for hours on a dais with people who generally annoy him, and chew his surf and turf live on C-SPAN before getting up and playing the clown.
As usual, President Obama killed—not with drones, but with jokes. The president’s line of the night: “I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with. Hello?”
Obama—whose material was shaped and tweaked, as in past years, by Daily Show comedy writer Kevin Bleyer—also displayed impressive acting chops, while his team brandished high production values, in a video featuring Lincoln director Steven Spielberg, who announced that his next presidential biopic will be titled Obama, also starring Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Except that when the video purported to show “Day-Lewis” preparing for the role in front of a mirror, repeating familiar catch phrases and checking those outsized ears, it’s actually the real guy. Where does he find the time?
The president was played onstage not to “Hail to the Chief,” but to DJ Khaled’s rap anthem “All I Do Is Win.”
“How do you like my new entrance music?” Obama asked. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this—second term, baby!”
That line got big laughs from the crowd of 3,000, which Conan O’Brien described as “one big high-school cafeteria.” O’Brien would know: he had the misfortune of having to entertain the crowd after Obama.
The 51-year-old Obama, whose once-black hair is graying at breakneck speed, pointed out that that while his glamorous wife, Michelle, is featured on the cover of Vogue, he gets Senior Leisure (a fictitious magazine cover projected on the big screens around the hall and showing the president taking a rickety golf swing).
“These days, I look in the mirror,” Obama said, “and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”
More presidential humor highlights:
- “Even after all this time, I still make rookie mistakes. Like, I’m out in California, we’re at a fundraiser, we’re having a nice time. I happen to mention that Kamala Harris is the best-looking attorney general in the country. As you might imagine, I got trouble when I got back home. Who knew Eric Holder was so sensitive?”
- During the recent White House Easter Egg Roll, “I go out on the basketball court, took 22 shots—made two of them. That’s right: two hits, 20 misses. The executives at NBC asked, ‘What’s your secret?’”
- “Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President. And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?”
- “I want to give a shout-out to our headliner, Conan O’Brien … I understand that when the Correspondents’ Association was considering Conan for this gig, they were faced with that age-old dilemma: do you offer it to him now, or wait for five years and then give it to Jimmy Fallon?” A few seats to the president’s right, the TBS talk show host grinned sheepishly and mouthed the words, “I’m fine.”
- “I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate. Some of my former advisers have switched over to the dark side. For example, David Axelrod now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod. The History Channel is not here. I guess they were embarrassed about the whole Obama-is-a-devil thing. Of course, that never kept Fox News from showing up. They actually thought the comparison was not fair—to Satan.”
- “Did you know that Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million of his own money last year on negative ads? You’ve got to really dislike me to spend that kind of money … Sheldon would have been better off offering me $100 million to drop out of the race. I probably wouldn’t have taken it, but I'd have thought about it. Michelle would have taken it.”
- “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
All working comedians are at a terrible disadvantage when it comes to following any president, let alone one who, as with Obama, boasts notable performance skills and a sure sense of comic timing. Conan O’Brien did about as well as any standup could who finds himself in such a luckless position.
O’Brien noted that this was his second time entertaining at the Correspondents’ Dinner. The first was 18 years ago. “If, in 1995, you told me that in 2013 we would have an African-American president with the middle name Hussein, who was just reelected to a second term in a sluggish economy, I would have said, ‘Oh, he must have run against Mitt Romney.’ ”
He took a couple of shots at CNN, which has been having a rough go of it lately: “Today’s entrées were halibut and filet mignon—or, as CNN’s John King reported it, lasagna and couscous.” And, he jabbed at another outlet: “If the president laughs, everyone laughs. And if the Fox News table laughs, a little girl just fell off her bike.”
Even more darkly, O’Brien joked: “Print media are here for two very good reasons: food and shelter … Newsweek after 80 years published its last print issue. Time magazine might be gloating, but they really shouldn’t, because Time will outlive Newsweek the way Juliet outlived Romeo.”
Still, if the Newsweek Daily Beast pre-dinner cocktail party (hosted by editor-in-chief Tina Brown, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, media titan Barry Diller, et al.) was any guide, the digital version of the magazine remains strong enough to have lured the tall, glamorous Kidman, HBO Newsroom star Olivia Munn, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood among other notables. LaHood insisted that the sequester-prompted flight delays were no longer a problem; McCaskill predicted that if the Senate ends up passing a gun control measure, it will be severely watered-down.
But that is fodder for next year’s dinner.