How a journalists’ dinner became a celebrity blowout

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) annual dinner began in 1921, featuring songs, satire and, as one attendee put it, “such fun as the Prohibition Era afforded.” It was created to honor the new president, Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher. Alas, Harding stiffed his ink-stained brethren: He never attended one of the dinners before he died in office in 1923.

A low-key affair for many years, the dinner didn’t really become the celebrity blowout it is today until the late 1980s.

Herewith, a timeline of some of the event’s high- and lowlights:

1924

Calvin Coolidge becomes the first president to attend the dinner, along with about 50 guests.

The Washington Post's Roxanne Roberts explains which celebrities have played a large role in dramatically changing the White House correspondents' dinner over the years. (Jhaan Elker, JulieAnn McKellogg and Roxanne Roberts/The Washington Post)

1930

The dinner goes on despite the death of former president and Supreme Court chief justice William Howard Taft on that day. President Herbert Hoover cancels his appearance.

1942

The dinner is canceled due to the U.S. entry into World War II. The next three dinners are held under wartime food-rationing restrictions.

1944

Bob Hope performs.

1945

Hosts and entertainers include Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice and Danny Kaye.

1951

At the height of the Korean War, the dinner is canceled; President Harry Truman cites the “uncertainty of the world situation.”

1953

Louis Lautier becomes the first African American journalist to attend the dinner, two years after becoming a WHCA member. Harry McAlpin — the first black journalist to attend a presidential news conference (during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration) had been denied membership by the WHCA.

1961

Despite complaints, women remain excluded from the dinner.

1962

President John Kennedy says he won’t attend the dinner unless the WHCA admits women. It does. He attends.

1963

Budding star Barbra Streisand, 21, performs and sings “Happy Days”; Merv Griffin emcees.

1968

Richard Pryor performs.

1972

Pat Nixon subs for President Richard Nixon, becoming the first first lady to stand in for her husband.

1973

Nixon attends but arrives after the presentation of awards to Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

1975

Helen Thomas of UPI becomes the first woman to head the WHCA.

1978

President Jimmy Carter, citing exhaustion, declines to attend, as does first lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale, the first time all three dignitaries are absent in decades.

1981

Fresh off a nude pictorial in Playboy, Rita Jenrette, estranged wife of convicted Abscam bribe-taker Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.), attends the dinner. President Ronald Reagan, wounded by a would-be assassin outside the same hotel a month earlier, addresses the dinner via speakerphone from Camp David.

1983

President Reagan dispenses with the traditional comedy monologue in observance of 17 Americans killed in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

1984

Impersonator Rich Little performs for the first time.

1987

Michael Kelly of the Baltimore Sun invites Fawn Hall, Col. Oliver North’s glamorous secretary and a key figure in the Iran-contra scandal, touching off the tradition of news organizations inviting celebrities.

1990

Robert Ellison of Sheridan Broadcasting becomes the first, and so far only, African American to head the WHCA. Marla Maples, implicated in the breakup of Donald Trump’s marriage, causes a media sensation as a guest of Time magazine.

1992

Vanity Fair hosts the event’s first celebrity-studded after-party.

1993

C-SPAN televises WHCA dinner for first time.

1994

Al Franken performs (and again in 1996). Only performer later elected to the U.S. Senate.

1998

Paula Jones, who accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harrassment, attends as guest of the Washington Times’ Insight magazine.

1999

Clinton, parroting Nixon in 1973, arrives after the presentation of a journalism award to Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff for his reporting on the Monica Lewinsky affair.

2004

President George W. Bush jokes about his inability to find weapons of mass destruction in the White House, drawing criticism from Democrats.

2006

Stephen Colbert gets mixed reviews for his scathing routine ripping the Bush administration and the news media. “Over the last five years, you [media] people were so good — over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out . . .”

2 007

Rich Little is hired to perform once again, largely to tamp down memories of Colbert’s routine. One critic calls him “as edgy as a butter knife.” President Bush forgoes lighthearted remarks in observance of the Virginia Tech shootings.

2009

President Obama dispenses with tradition and mostly mocks his allies and opponents, but not himself: To wit: “This is a tough holiday for Rahm [Emanuel]. He’s not used to saying the word ‘day’ after ‘mother.’ “

READ MORE:

Joel McHale is ready for the weirdest gig of his life at White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Patrick Gavin’s WHCD documentary to include ‘fans and haters’

PARTY DIARY: Pro tips for surviving WHCD weekend

PHOTOS: White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner: Highlights from years past

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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