Washington’s media and political elite partied like it was 2019 on Saturday at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner, the traditionally glitzy spring gala that staggered back to life after a pandemic-induced two-year hiatus.
President Biden skipped the actual dinner in the crowded subterranean Washington Hilton ballroom — an unspoken nod to covid risks — but popped in for his 14-minute speech, in the usual tradition of light mocking and self-deprecation. “Thank you for that introduction and the 42 percent who applauded it,” he said pointedly, adding that his journalist hosts were “the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have.”
Biden also noted that he was the first president to appear in six years, as predecessor Donald Trump declined to attend. “We had a horrible plague — and two years of covid,” Biden quipped.
Noting that he decided to attend “to show the country we’re getting through this pandemic,” he teed up the first of several jokes at the expense of Fox News, the conservative news channel that frequently hosted vaccine skeptics. If you’re wondering if it’s safe to come out, Biden riffed, “contact your favorite Fox News correspondent — they’re all here, vaccinated and boosted.”
He also riffed on the derisive “Let’s go, Brandon” chat that is a euphemism for an obscenity aimed at him. “Republicans seem to support some guy named Brandon,” he said. “He’s having a really good year. And I’m happy for him!”
“Daily Show” host Trevor Noah, the featured entertainer, resumed the familiar ritual of skewering the powerful in the room. The last dinner in 2019 seemed to lose this confident spirit; it featured a presidential historian, Ron Chernow, as the after-dinner speaker. He drew as many laughs as you’d expect a presidential historian to draw.
“It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event,” said Noah, beginning a set that took aim at reporters, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump and former CNN host Chris Cuomo.
The native of South Africa said he was confused as to why he was selected to be the evening’s comic, but then he realized that Biden gets his “highest approval ratings standing next to a biracial African guy.”
Biden stayed through Noah’s routine and, in all, was in the room for roughly one hour, mingling maskless with people on the dais — all of whom had been tested for coronavirus that evening — for several minutes at the end before leaving.
The 2,600 guests included Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, business executives and some lower-wattage Hollywood figures. Kim Kardashian, escorted hand-in-hand by “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson and a personal photographer, attended, as did Martha Stewart, Drew Barrymore, Brooke Shields and Caitlyn Jenner, among others. There were even a healthy cohort of actual White House correspondents in attendance; the journalist contingent in the room is often diluted by the number of corporate suits and high-ranking pols who score seats at tables bought by media organizations.
Among those who were not there: Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, though the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Ashish Jha, did show up. Fauci, 81, had planned to make it to the dinner but pulled out at midweek, saying the risks of attending outweighed the benefits.
His decision to send regrets underscored a lingering question: Should the event have been held at all? The doubts mounted after 85 guests at another elite Washington event, the Gridiron Club dinner on April 3, tested positive for coronavirus several days later (Fauci attended the Gridiron dinner but was not infected).
The White House Correspondents’ Association decided to forge ahead anyway, instituting a double requirement of vaccinations and testing on guests. Ticketed guests had to upload their vaccine records and the results of a same-day negative coronavirus test to a balky app for admission.
Guests mingled at the dinner and at crowded predinner receptions for the better part of five hours. Most guests went without masks, which were more conspicuous on the faces of the hotel’s staff and banquet servers.
The program began with a humorous video featuring “Late Late Show” host James Corden visiting Biden in the Oval Office and press secretary Jen Psaki in her office. Psaki gave Corden tips on holding a media briefing, including advice on what to wear. He then held a mock news conference featuring actual White House reporters.
WHCA president Steven Portnoy of CBS News noted in his presentation that Biden first attended the dinner in 1974.
The awards portion of the program, usually a routine affair, had two emotional highlights. One was the presentation of a new award named for two late reporters, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne. Dunnigan, of the Associated Negro Press, and Payne, who worked for the Chicago Defender, were the first African American women to become White House correspondents in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first Dunnigan-Payne Prize was presented by CBS anchor Gayle King to the families of the two women.
Portnoy also introduced Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and former Marine captain who was taken captive in Syria nine years ago. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised to press for the return of Tice and other Americans unlawfully held abroad. The introduction had an unspoken subtheme: Debra Tice criticized the White House in December, saying she hadn’t been able to meet with Biden or his national security adviser to discuss her son’s plight.
Biden said after her introduction that he intended to meet with her.
Portnoy also noted the arrest and jailing in Moscow of Russian dissident writer and Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza, and introduced a short memorial tribute to journalists who have been killed covering the war in Ukraine.