Hard to remember amid the celebrity circus, but the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner used to be a quiet affair honoring the president and the folks who covered him. A break from the day-to-day grind, the night allows the president — under the guise of humor — to address the news of the day, tease the loyal opposition (obligatory John Boehner one-liner here), and, basically, make us like him.
(UPDATED, 5/1: White House Correspondents dinner sees a less serious Obama)
Of course, some bits work better than others. What makes a legend most? A few WHCA presidential guidelines:
Be self-deprecating: Always a smart move, especially when you can zing your critics at the same time. Obama got big laughs in 2009 about his Teleprompter habit. Last year, it was a birther gag: “My approval ratings. . . have just gone down. But that’s politics. It doesn’t bother me. Beside I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.”
Then mock the other guys: In descending order of importance, the vice-president, chief of staff, cabinet members and freshman congress. “Happy Mother’s Day,” Obama told the crowd at his first dinner. “This is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he’s not used to saying the word ‘day’ after ‘mother.’ ” What’s worse than being a punchline? Not getting mentioned.
Oh no he didn’t: Obama was probably the only person who could get away with this at the 2010 dinner: “I saw Michael Steele backstage when we were taking pictures — aka Notorious GOP. Michael, who knows what truly plagues America today: Taxation without representin’. My brother!”
Visual aids: Painful when done poorly, awesome if a professional film crew has your back. Bill Clinton scored big with his hilarious “Final Days” video at the 2000 dinner, which showed the lame duck playing “Battleship,” riding his bike inside the White House, washing his limo and otherwise killing time.
Bait and switch: George W. Bush’s most memorable outings happened when he didn’t give a speech. In 2005, Laura Bush hijacked the mike and deadpanned a 10-minute routine. “I said to him the other day, George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.”
The next year, he teamed up with dead-on Bush impersonator Steve Bridges. “I’m absolutely delighted to be here,” said the real Bush, while his alter-ego complained, “The media really ticks me off — the way they try to embarrass me by not editing what I say.”
Shout out to celebs in the house: In 2002, Bush singled out Ozzy Osbourne, whose MTV reality series was hot then. Osbourne stood on his chair to sop up the attention, drawing wild cheers from the crowd. Last year, Obama took on the Jonas Brothers. “Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: predator drones.”
How will Obama (and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Seth Meyers fare this year? You don’t need a ticket to see for yourself: Their speeches will be broadcast live on C-Span.
Video: Dueling George Bushes at 2006 White House Correspondents’ dinner
Read earlier: White House Correspondents’ dinner guests: Why’d they get invited?, 4/27/11
Read last year: For Obama, a changed tone in presidential humor, 5/3/10