Until the “jokes” started, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner was quite a good time. My colleagues at NBC/MSNBC hosted wonderful events, my friends at The Post were welcoming, and the CNN gang with whom I worked during the presidential debates was as cheery and ebullient as usual. My dinner companions were the remarkable NBC Pentagon and national security correspondent Courtney Kube, who has been to war zones three times more often than I’ve been to Hawaii, and Geoff Bennett, a radio guy who has moved to the tube. So I actually got to hear war stories and talk about both forms of broadcast through the course of a fine meal.
I wasn’t the only avowed conservative in the room. Mary Katharine Ham, Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, and a few others were also there; together we might have made up a table or two.
Former Indians pitcher Dennis Eckersley popped up to say hello, leaving me starstruck. I can still hear Herb Score calling his no-hitter in 1977. And of course Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), my fellow alum from John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, and I had to dissect the Browns draft and the launch of the Baker Mayfield era in Cleveland.
All was just fine, in fact, and even inspiring as the First Amendment was honored, young journalists were applauded and excellent journalists were feted for their best work.
And then comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage. She was funny about 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent was vulgar and, of course, overwhelmingly anti-President Trump. As she repeatedly told us, she knew we expected her to attack the president, a surprise to me as my understanding is that the entertainment is to be a bipartisan singe of all embedded in the city’s vanities. Wolf directed many inappropriate comments at the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, four seats away, whose dismissive stare was actually regal.
If, as someone once said, “the essence of good taste is never to be offended by bad taste,” that makes Sanders the Good Taste Person of the Year.
There wasn’t a decent person in the room who wasn’t at least often offended by the diatribe delivered in a near-scream, part of Wolf’s act. And yes, journalists by and large are decent folk. I had occasion yesterday to send a note off to a former George W. Bush aide that noted how gracious 43 was — as always — in the days after his mother’s death. I included a quote from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”: “Mordred and Agravaine thought Arthur hypocritical, as all decent men must be if you assume that decency cannot exist.” If you are from the extremes of left or right and assume there aren’t any decent folk across the aisle or in press gallery scribbling, you are not only wrong but lack a capacity to learn. Alas, Wolf did nothing but harden your prejudices.
There will be some who thought Wolf’s commentary just fine, part of the necessary “resistance,” but the best were, if not shocked, at least saddened. The New York Times’ Peter Baker, in a masterwork of understatement, tweeted out his judgment: “Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight.”
However that “cause” is defined, it was certainly not advanced, at least for the audience watching at home — and certainly not for the Trump supporters, many undecideds and some propriety-bound moms and dads who had to usher children out of the room.
By the principle of transference, watchers of Wolf’s spasm of venom and vulgarity will conclude that she represents the journalists assembled. She does not — not my friends in the craft from the left, right or somewhere undetermined. When all of the slicing “humor” is directed at the president and his team, the Democrats are chided only for not doing enough and the media is gently mocked for its slogans or its failures to skewer Trump more thoroughly, what’s a viewer to conclude?
Well, that the president must be right about this “fake news” business and that the whole lot of them must be in opposition to all of red America. They are not, but if the only evidence in the debate was a tape of last night’s dinner, the verdict would be with the president.
I’ve been teaching law students the glories of the First Amendment for two decades. It is among my favorite stretches of class, to drill into them that the genius of a free press, combined with the rights of free expression and association as well as religious freedom, is truly the decisive factor that drives American creativity and protects its political debate.
Is it really impossible to find some speaker of amusing disposition who can elevate an evening rather than leave it trashed and stained? Because if the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and its wrap-up “keynote” define the First Amendment for the layman, he or she will care very little if it is actually curtailed, actually someday threatened, which it has not been and should never be.
In other places, though, journalists suffer and give their lives for truth, not for low, hyper-partisan “humor” of the sort associated with failed lounge acts in the seedier venues of isolated casinos. What a fail.