As the controversy surrounding comedian Michelle Wolf’s eye-popping routine at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner crescendos, the rest of the night’s other head-scratching moments were largely forgotten. And there were definitely a few odd one-offs at Saturday night’s event that deserve an honorable mention. Remember: The comedian’s roast of the room is the cap of the evening. That leaves nearly three hours of dinner time for something awkward to happen.
The first clumsy moment came when country singer Ty Herndon sang “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” The crowd of 3,000 was hastily asked to sing along, and lots of extremely off-key mumbling ensued — as well as confusion about whether to sit, stand or keep drinking. Herndon, who came out as gay in 2014 and is a supporter of the “Beyond I Do” campaign against LGBT discrimination, was a guest of Fox News. The last singer to perform in the Washington Hilton ballroom in recent memory was Natalie Stovall, who sang “America the Beautiful” at the 2007 dinner.
The next random cameo was President Trump — in cartoon form. A clip was played from “Our Cartoon President,” the Showtime series executive-produced by late-night host and dinner alum Stephen Colbert. In it, an animated version of Trump agrees to speak at the dinner. “Can you believe the lying fake media invited me again to the White House correspondents’ dinner? I mean, you don’t see the Central Park Five inviting me to brunch.” Har har?
But the deepest record scratch came during White House Correspondents’ Association President Margaret Talev’s opening speech. She fiercely underscored the importance of the First Amendment and condemned attempts to undermine the news media. Makes sense. But just seconds later, Talev, who works at Bloomberg News, made it a point to thank White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sanders, who has repeatedly used Trump’s “fake news” phrase, has an adversarial relationship with the briefing room at best and a combative one at worst.
“Thank you for being here,” Talev said. “Sarah, we really appreciate your participation and your ongoing work with our members to help us cover the White House and help Americans see their government in action, thank you.” The gratitude seemed extremely odd in the face of the growing rift between the press and the current administration.
Later, the very real Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared in a satirical address from “the future former speaker of the house” that looked as if it had been shot on an iPhone. Ryan, who is retiring, joked that “unfortunately I’m not able to be there with you tonight. Instead, [my wife] Janna and I will be spending the evening freshening up my LinkedIn page.” Then the camera cut to Ryan typing in his office: “Waiter at Tortilla Coast, 1991 to 1994.” That “punchline,” and the video as a whole, got crickets in the ballroom. Ryan’s cameo in general seemed random — although he had earlier met with WHCA scholarship recipients.
Of course, all these quirkier moments would soon be overshadowed completely by the evening’s highlight — or lowlight, depending on who you ask. Once Wolf started lobbing F-bombs and landing punchlines about pussy hats, the dinner’s overall awkwardness took a back seat.