If Donald Trump manages to accomplish one positive thing it might be to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents dinner — that star-studded, multi-platform orgy of preening and mutual ego-stroking that seems to serve no purpose other than to give the Washington elite a chance to show how powerful and well-connected they are.
The annual dinner probably sounded like a good way to establish closer relations between Calvin Coolidge and the men who covered him back in 1924, when Presidents started attending. President Coolidge was a famously tight-lipped guy so an off-the-record night of roast beef, cigars and brandy at fancy hotel undoubtedly helped to loosen everyone up and give reporters a better understanding of the president’s thoughts.
Since then the dinner has metastasized into a bizarre marriage of the worst of the Oscars and Davos. Calls to end the extravaganza have increased over the years and Samantha Bee, for one, has launched an alternative gala, which is being called “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
And now Trump himself has said he won’t attend, which is not much of a surprise considering his feud with the press. It would have been pretty hypocritical of all involved if he’d showed up and everyone had made light-hearted jokes about each other.
Back in the Reagan Administration, I attended one White House Correspondent’s dinner. That was so long ago that the evening’s entertainment was a comedian that no one had ever heard of but who killed that night – Jay Leno. This was also the notorious night that hooked the press corps on celebrity. I’m sure the Baltimore Star had no idea what they were unleashing when they invited Oliver North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, to sit at their table, but ever since then media outlets have competed to land the most talked-about guest.
Until the Fawn Hall invitation, the informal rules for the dinner were pretty straight-forward. Media organizations and lobbyists bought expensive tables and invited sources to sit with them. These might be Senators and Representatives, White House staffers, agency press people – someone who had something to do with governing and who could be helpful to the media in their coverage of the government.
Fawn Hall changed all that because her appearance was so sensational. In 1987 she was Washington’s idea of a celebrity – in addition to being beautiful everyone at the dinner knew her through her televised testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. She wasn’t at the dinner because she was a source but because she was a famous footnote to the biggest scandal of the 1980s. All anybody could talk about that night was how the Baltimore Sun had snagged Fawn Hall and wasn’t that such a great idea to get someone who could lend some glamour to the occasion?
In the overall scheme of things, Fawn Hall was only a B Minus celebrity, but in the years to come, news organizations tried to one-up themselves with actual celebrities, including movie and TV stars, ranging from George Clooney and Steven Spielberg to Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan. Vanity Fair started hosting an after-party and the cable news channels started to broadcast it live.
And now there’s a red carpet component: the idea that the White House Correspondents Dinner can justify having red carpet news coverage makes me want to puke. Something else that revolts me is that people have started calling it the “Nerd Prom.” Celebrities think that nerds are smart in addition to being antisocial so this is a self-deprecating way for them to imply there’s a hidden depth underneath all that glamour.
Aside from the red carpet, the main event at the dinner is the entertainment, in which, traditionally, the President makes self-deprecating jokes and the emcee, usually a comedian, makes snarky jokes about the President (if he’s a Republican) or snarky jokes about the President’s critics (if he’s a Democrat.)
President Obama was born for these events and his performances at the dinner were rapturously received. Obama is smart, witty, and tied in with the cultural zeitgeist so his speeches and one-liners were snappier and funnier than the monologues of any late night hosts. Last year, for example, Keegan-Michael Key for Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” appeared as Luther, Obama’s anger translator, and “translated” Obama’s moderate comments into angry rants. This of-the-moment humor, combined with the deft flattery of the White House press corps made Obama the undisputed star in a room full of Hollywood A-list actors.
There is no chance that President Trump could have hoped to match Obama’s performance. He has no sense of humor, much less a self-deprecating sense of humor and the audience was unlikely to fall to their feet in supplication as they did to Obama.
Of course if Trump had wanted to play the inside Washington game he could have hired the best speechwriters and joke-smiths and shocked the world by offering an olive branch. Nancy Reagan did exactly that when she performed a skit at the Gridiron Dinner singing “Second Hand Clothes,” which mocked her image as a clothes horse and White House China addict. By making fun of herself in front of the press she transformed from Marie Antoinette-like to a beloved Washington insider herself.
Trump won’t play Nancy Reagan’s game. He’s getting too much mileage out of his press feud and becoming their darling, no matter how temporarily, is not in his interest. And that’s fine with me. If the President is not at the dinner, it becomes exposed for what it is: not a nerd prom but a regular prom where the most popular and most beautiful people swagger and celebrate themselves. The White House press corps already think they’re pretty special, they don’t need a night to emphasize it.