For years, the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner was an embarrassment.
Although, for many, an eagerly awaited and richly relished one.
It involved journalists cozying up to the government officials they are supposed to treat with a sense of adversarial independence, all while trying to get selfies with the likes of Helen Mirren, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson.
“The main purpose of the evening,” John Oliver quipped, “seems to be providing photos of glamorous celebrities completely unaware of who they’re standing next to.”
President Trump has changed all that. By refusing to attend the dinner himself and by making the government-press relationship truly adversarial — “enemy of the people,” etc. — he’s sandblasted the high gloss off the party.
What’s left is a high-minded journalism awards dinner, which is what the organizers, all along, defended it as.
“A celebration of the First Amendment and the importance of a free and independent news media to a healthy republic,” was how Olivier Knox, WHCA president and chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM, recently characterized it. (My colleagues Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker are among this year’s awards recipients.)
It was not always thus.
Last year, in an already fizzling-out event, featuring comic Michelle Wolf, things got even more uncomfortable in the claustrophobic Washington Hilton ballroom.
By the day after the party, Fox News chief national correspondent Ed Henry and NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell were calling for the WHCA to apologize to Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Sanders had been in the audience as Wolf took her shots: “She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Wolf was right, of course, as was proved in the Mueller report, which documents one of Sanders’s many shameless whoppers: that countless FBI officials were celebrating the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
But the 2018 party’s aftermath featured all sorts of second thoughts about the appropriateness of the frontal attack and the unseemly setting.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we advanced the cause of journalism tonight,” tweeted Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent of the New York Times. (The Times, for the most part, has not attended the event in recent years.)
Cracks began to appear in the dinner’s shiny facade not long after President Trump’s inauguration.
In 2017, Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, said he’d go fishing in Connecticut instead of hosting the magazine’s usual hot-ticket after-party. Asked why he was bailing out, Carter responded: “Trump, and the fish.”
From there, it was only a matter of time.
“Gone for good, it seems, are the Oscars-esque rarefied air of the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair, People/Time and Google affairs. The Correspondents’ Jam hosted by Rolling Stones touring keyboardist Chuck Leavell, which featured bands fronted by journalists and a few celebrity ringers, is a no-go this year because of the band’s previously scheduled tour,” reported Emily Heil and Helena Andrews-Dyer, who write the Reliable Source column in The Washington Post.
There will be pre-parties and after-parties, and no doubt plenty of government-press schmoozing throughout the weekend.
That part of it could still stand some reforming.
“If you’re a reporter, you shouldn’t be taking selfies with the defense secretary,” Patrick Gavin, formerly of Politico, once told The Wrap. Gavin produced the 2015 documentary “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week,” a sendup and exposé of the annual dinner’s old ways.
As for entertainment at this year’s dinner, it’ll be a keynote speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow, author of “Grant” and the Alexander Hamilton biography that inspired the blockbuster Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
All very virtuous.
“As boring as a dentists convention,” predicted former Reliable Source columnist Richard Leiby, now an editor in the Style section.
President Trump won’t attend. He’ll be doing a rally in Wisconsin that day. (Last year, he rallied his base in Michigan.)
“Too negative,” he said recently about the dinner, though on Tuesday he was in his usual form, slamming MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough as “psycho,” and Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist, as “stupid.”
Regarding his planned absence from the dinner, Trump added: “I like positive things.”
But he’ll be certainly there in spirit.
Trump is certainly no friend of the free press, but in his role as dinner-damper, he’s done journalists a huge favor.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan