Last year, comedian Michelle Wolf was lambasted by the Trump administration and some members of the press for the edgy jokes she delivered while hosting the White House correspondents’ dinner, an event hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association to award scholarships, honor journalists and celebrate the First Amendment. This year, the WHCA broke with tradition by asking a non-comedian to deliver the keynote address: acclaimed historian Ron Chernow, known for writing the book on which Broadway’s “Hamilton” was based.
Saturday night’s event began with a moment of silence for victims of the California synagogue shooting that occurred earlier that day, and the official program commenced around an hour later. What the program lacked in provocative humor and star power, it made up for in somber political statements and history lessons.
Here’s what you missed from the dinner.
A politically charged introduction by WHCA President Olivier Knox
Oliver Knox, president of the WHCA, said early on that to maintain the celebratory nature of the event, he didn’t want to dwell on President Trump’s animosity toward the press. But his speech still managed to shed a light on how journalists’ lives have changed for the worse since February 2017, when Trump referred to news media as the “enemy of the American people.” Knox said he receives death threats and tells his family not to touch packages on their stoop. His son once worried that Trump would put Knox in prison.
“It shouldn’t need to be said in a room full of people who understand the power of words,” Knox said, “but ‘fake news’ and ‘enemies of the people’ are not pet names, punchlines or presidential.”
The speech also highlighted Austin Tice, an American journalist who has been missing since he was detained in Syria over six years ago. Knox, who asked everyone to wear pins emblazoned with “Free Austin Tice,” read a letter from Tice’s parents aloud: “In his silence, Austin needs your voice,” they wrote. “We ask that you take every opportunity to raise your voice, from the newsroom to the White House.”
After highlighting others who were targeted because of their craft — Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the Capital Gazette staff in Annapolis, Md., and more — Knox announced an annual prize that will underscore the importance of local and regional reporting by awarding $25,000 for the best piece of investigative and/or political journalism focused on trust and accountability in state government.
Chernow’s actually funny keynote address
Funny for a historian, anyway. After referring to it as a “20-minute sedative,” Chernow delivered a speech exploring past administrations’ relationships with the press. His underlying point: While that relationship has almost always been adversarial, it doesn’t have to be “steeped in venom” as it is nowadays.
While subtle, Chernow made quite a few digs at Trump, such as when he referred to George Washington failing to put his name on Mount Vernon as a failure in branding: “Clearly deficient in the art of the deal,” Chernow said of Washington, “the poor man had to settle for the title of ‘father of his country.’ ”
Another: “I applaud any president who aspires to the Nobel Prize for peace, but we don’t want one in the running for the Nobel Prize for fiction."
Chernow also told attendees that he “cruelly deprived you of a comedian tonight” and therefore shared a few political one-liners that he attributed (incorrectly in the second case) to Mark Twain, including: “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except for Congress,” and “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”
A bunch of presidential anecdotes
In addition to his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Chernow is known for his books on Presidents George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. He scattered entertaining anecdotes related to presidents’ varying relationships with the press throughout his address, roughly sectioning them off by century.
Although Calvin Coolidge began the practice of regularly scheduled news conferences, Chernow said, his reticence earned him the nickname Silent Cal. He had reporters submit questions on index cards. “Small wonder that Dorothy Parker, when informed of Coolidge’s death, retorted, ‘How do they know?’ ”
The presidential relationship with the press worsened with Coolidge’s successors until Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Chernow said “swept away these restrictive rules and, lo and behold, treated reporters like grown-ups.” Roosevelt conducted nearly 1,000 conferences throughout his presidency — in addition to his 30 Fireside Chats and the conferences first lady Eleanor Roosevelt held with female journalists.
Several calls to action
Chernow also employed the presidential anecdotes to inspire journalists to stay committed to their trade in the face of adversity. He referred to the news media as a “cornerstone of democracy,” and referenced James Madison’s great support of the free press as proof of how essential it is to American society.
“Campaigns against the press don’t get your face carved into Mount Rushmore, for when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy,” Chernow said, later adding: “We must recall that civility has been an essential lubricant in our democratic culture, and that even our best presidents have handled the press with wit, grace, charm, candor and even humor.”
The most direct call to action arrived toward the end of Chernow’s address, shortly before he began to quote Twain: “Donald J. Trump is not the first and won’t be the last American president to create jitters about the First Amendment,” he said. “Be humble, be skeptical and be aware of being infected by the very things you’re fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with reluctance and aimed with precision.”
And, finally, what you didn’t miss from the dinner ...
Trump didn’t attend the WHCD, but neither did the hordes of celebrities who used to appear as cameras surveyed the dinner attendees. Their presence has dwindled since Trump took office. Instead, celebrities attended comedian Samantha Bee’s “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” on Friday night. (Though singer Amanda Palmer noticeably walked the red carpet on Saturday with a ukulele, on which the words “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” had been written.)
clarification: An earlier version of this post reported that historian Ron Chernow quoted a few political one-liners from Mark Twain, including: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” Chernow misattributed that quote to Twain. The article has been updated.