The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner can claim credit for so many things: It has produced marriages (including that of actors Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello, who met cute at the 2014 dinner), Hollywood casting coups (comedian Joel McHale won a spot on the new “X-Files” because of his performance emceeing the swank soiree) — not to mention a boost to the wallets of the city’s Uber drivers and hair salons.
But it turns out, the dinner is now being held responsible for something perhaps more momentous — Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a force that has scrambled the Republican field and knocked conventional political wisdom on its head. Some campaign watchers believe it was President Obama’s mocking of Trump during the traditional roast by the president, the annual rite when POTUS doles out sometimes-funny insults to the VIPs gathered in the room, that spurred the reality TV star/real estate mogul to run.
Writing about Trump’s Tuesday win in the New Hampshire primary, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times claims that “the roots of his candidacy can be traced to May 2011, when President Obama, during his address at the White House correspondents’ dinner, put a picture of his Hawaiian birth certificate on a large screen.” Obama proceeded to mock Trump, who had been fanning the flames of the birther set.
Trump sat silent as the crowd of thousands laughed. “Five years later, he seems determined not to be humiliated again, and to stop those who laughed at him,” Haberman wrote.
Here’s the history-making burn in full, per the White House transcript:
“Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. (Laughter.) And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter –- like, did we fake the moon landing? (Laughter.) What really happened in Roswell? (Laughter.) And where are Biggie and Tupac? (Laughter and applause.)
But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter.) For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice — (laughter) — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter.) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter.) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. (Laughter and applause.) Well handled, sir. (Laughter.) Well handled.”
Haberman’s not alone in finding significance in that moment. In September, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote about the scene, which he witnessed from a perch just a few tables over from Trump. “One can’t help but suspect that, on that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the Presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself.”
Trump later claimed he loved the bit. But if the origin story of “Make America Great Again” really does begin in the sweaty ballroom of the Washington Hilton, Obama himself created Trump, the candidate — or should we blame the team of White House speechwriters and Hollywood comics who contributed to the monologue?