“I want to make this clear to the Fox News table: That was a joke,” said the tuxedo-clad president from a rostrum at a head table adorned with tulips and hydrangeas. “That was not my real birth video. That was a children’s cartoon. Call Disney if you don’t believe me. They have the original long-form version.”
The president, ever inscrutable, is officially in reelection mode, having spent the past week on matters serious (touring the tornado-ravaged South) and silly (asserting his place of birth). The question, politically, was what version of himself would Obama choose to display at this weird, sensitive time at this weird, ritzy event? Savvy campaigner, ponderous professor, cutting jokester, arrogant taskmaster?
All of the above. He self-deprecated, referencing his flagging poll numbers and running a medley clip of his own speech flubs, and dinged a host of GOP stalwarts — joking that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was born in Canada (“Yes, Michele, this is how it starts”), that former governor Tim Pawlenty’s middle name is “Hosni,” and that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) couldn’t be there because “his budget has no room for laughter.”
Personalities in attendance ranged widely: Cyclist Lance Armstrong was seated next to White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) chatted up Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” (who played Brown on “Saturday Night Live”). Congressional leadership schmoozed with TV anchors such as Bill O’Reilly and David Gregory. Joan Rivers was several gowns away from Paula Abdul. “Saturday Night Live” head writer Seth Meyers gave the traditional celebrity keynote address.
But the star of the show was off the dais, at Table 98. Business tycoon, potential presidential candidate and birther proponent Donald Trump, invited by this very newspaper, basked in the attention of the leader of the free world and the people who write about him. Trump elicited boos from gawkers and protesters while entering the Washington Hilton, but once inside it was all flashbulbs and glad-handing and laughs.
Obama praised Trump’s executive experience in a backhanded way, by referring to Trump’s TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
“You, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership,” Obama said. “And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey. These are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir.”
The room erupted in cathartic cheers. Trump received the ribbing with a closed-mouth smirk.
Meyers followed the president’s speech, and left few media entities and politicians un-ridiculed.
“The New York Times [after-party] used to be free, but apparently there’s a cover now,” Meyers said, alluding to the Times’ new Web site paywall. “So like everyone else, I will probably go to the Huffington Post party. And the Huffington Post is asking people to go to other parties first and steal food and drinks.”
Meyers, who was received warmly (except by Trump, who sat stony-faced) and given a standing ovation afterward, joked that the only person who could beat Obama in 2012 would be “2008 Barack Obama.”
“You would’ve loved him,” Meyers said, turning to the president and then remarking how Obama’s youthfulness and vigor are on the wane. In 2008, he looked like “the guy from the Old Spice commercial,” Meyers said, and now he looks like “Louis Gossett Sr.”
This is the type of event where all is forgiven — or at least temporarily forgotten — for the duration of dinner.
Good humor was as ubiquitous as dinner rolls. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), while observing an intense conversation between Trump and Newt Gingrich before dinner: “Crazy, and crazier.”
Every year the dinner, a tradition dating to 1920, makes commentators squirm over the cozy tableau of journalists scarfing petite filet and Montrachet cheese with the very people they cover — temporarily ignoring the business of the people, who are a bit preoccupied at present with the buzzkill of 8.8 percent unemployment, those tornadoes that shredded the South and the deadly revolts that are roiling the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama closed his speech on a serious note by reminding the crowd of the damage in the South, the unrest in the Middle East and the sacrifice of the nation’s armed forces — and of journalists who run to the front lines.
“We’ve seen daring men and women risk their lives for the simple idea that no one should be silenced, and everyone deserves to know the truth,” Obama said.
Serious moments were fleeting, though, and important people made excuses as to why they were there, and why they keep coming back. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who decamped for Chicago and became mayor, said he attended the dinner because he was invited by a constituent newspaper: the Chicago Tribune.
“This is my last year,” insisted Colin Powell, idling by his dinner table.
“That’s what you said last year,” his wife, Alma, said.
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report