This year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner will be markedly different than those in recent history — no glass-raising president on the dais, no tuxedoed Cabinet secretaries in the hotel ballroom seats, and few imported celebrities to selfie with.
The reasons: President Trump and his aides’ decisions to snub the dinner; Hollywood’s antipathy toward the White House; and the queasiness many journos feel about breaking bread with the very folks who’ve labeled them “FAKE NEWS.”
So is it time for a departure from another WHCD tradition, that of a comedian cracking jokes about the president? Is now the chance for dinner organizers to whip up some (vodka-spiked) lemonade by turning the dinner’s implosion into a reminder that the dinner was always supposed to be about celebrating journalism?
The yuks might be a hard habit to break. Since the early 1980s, the dinner has featured a stand-up act by a celebrity comic poking fun at the president and the media. But with Trump’s boycott, at least half the jokes won’t have the chance to land on their target in real time, making it no better than your average late-night monologue.
“It’s pointless to go to a roast where the guest of dishonor isn’t there,” says Bob Garfield, the host of “On the Media” for WNYC and a long-standing critic of the dinner. “A comic would be a poor choice.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association has yet to announce who the headliner will be for the April 29 soiree. That’s highly unusual — they typically would have announced the entertainer months ago. What was always a tough gig, it seems, is practically radioactive in the Trump Age.
Meanwhile, across town, comedian Samantha Bee will be skewering Trump along with a band of as-yet-announced-but-high-level-talent at her “Not the White House Correspondents Dinner” counter-programming that will eventually air on TBS as a comedy special.
But if dinner organizers don’t go with the usual professional joke-slinger, they don’t have too many other options.
Musical acts are typically a bust, notes George Condon, a longtime White House correspondent for National Journal who is writing a history of the dinner. The dinner, which started in 1924, initially featured vaudeville acts, and musicians regularly played the gig through the decades. The problem, Condon says, was that attendees were too busy chatting it up and schmoozing to listen to the music, which got drowned out.
Plus, bands were expensive. Condon said that with the dinner in peril, in “desperation,” the committee in 1983 switched to a single performer, satirist and piano player Mark Russell. It worked — people finally shut up, and the comedic tradition has endured since.
But what about one of Journalism’s Great Ones giving a pep talk to the Fourth Estate? Hey, the pedestal-dwelling likes of a Tom Brokaw or a Bob Woodward are now being lauded as the kind of truth-tellers we once looked to the comedians for. How better to underscore that the evening was always really about celebrating the First Amendment and journalists — and the scholarships the dinner raises money for?
Eh, say dinner veterans. “Frankly, people don’t want to put on a tux and come out on a Saturday night to get lectured to,” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent who now heads George Washington University’s School of Media and Public affairs. Sesno has been involved in the scholarship initiative, and applauds the newly rediscovered focus on the journalism over glitz.
“This is an extreme way of re-centering” the dinner, he says. “But it’s still supposed to be fun — it can be fun with a purpose.”