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 U.S. 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. This year, Samantha Bee, for one, is launching 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 lighthearted jokes about each other.
Back in the Reagan Administration, I attended one White House Correspondent’s dinner. That was so long ago 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 Sun had no idea what it was unleashing when it 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 straightforward.
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, she was known 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 glamor 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: 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 is a hidden depth underneath all that glamor.
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.
No chance that President Trump could hope to match Obama’s performance. He has no sense of humor, much less a self-deprecating one — and the audience is 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 jokesmiths 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.
Trump won’t play Nancy Reagan’s game. He’s getting too much mileage out of his press feud, so 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.