February 17 2017
If Donald Trump’s presidency deals the death blow to the incestuous White House Correspondents Dinner, that alone will go some ways towards draining the swamp that is Washington.
Journalists like to call the annual dinner, traditionally held in the spring at the Washington Hilton, the “nerd prom”; a humble brag that conjures up something far more bookish than the actual event. The New York Times recently called the soiree “the apex of Washington’s social calendar, replete with Hollywood A-listers, tuxedoed television stars and live coverage on the major news networks.” Think of it as the Oscars, East Coast.
But that was before Donald Trump. Scheduled for April 29, the dinner this year will be a ghost of its former self. Trump, who endured a famously miserable evening at the 2011 dinner (when both President Obama and the night’s entertainer Seth Meyers got off some brutal jokes at his expense), won’t have to lift a finger to slay the beast. Unable to suffer the indignity of breaking bread with the new occupant of the White House, media types, who were only too thrilled to see and be seen partying at the dinner during the Clinton and Obama presidencies (and probably had their dancing shoes polished for a Clinton restoration), are doing it for him.
Vanity Fair magazine, which has co-hosted a glitzy after-party affair with Bloomberg LP since 2009, will not participate this year. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who has feuded with Trump since he dubbed the then-real estate mogul “the short-fingered vulgarian,” has said that he plans to spend the weekend fishing in Connecticut. The New Yorker, another Conde Nast publication, will not throw its usual pre-party gathering at the W Hotel. Lemming-like, other publications are sure to cancel. This is, unabashedly, a good thing: It’s time to close the books on this remnant of the ancient regime that the voters (not including those in New York, Washington, and California), many of whom would be attending the dinner in better times, soundly rejected.
The White House Correspondents Dinner, which reached its apogee in the Obama years, when time and again the media and Hollywood crowd could not get over how funny the president’s jokes were, actually had humble and purely utilitarian beginnings. In 1914, a group of Washington journalists banded together to found the White House Correspondents Association when it was bruited about that a Congressional committee was going to decide which reporters could attend President Woodrow Wilson’s press conferences.
It turned out that this was just a rumor, but the association, though dormant for a few years, continued. It held its first dinner in 1920. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend in 1924, and since then every president has been a guest. The dinner Coolidge attended, held at the now-vanished Arlington Hotel, near McPherson Square, was a small affair, however, with fifty guests. There were no celebrities. “Attendees wouldn’t have caught Charlie Chaplin or Groucho Marx ribbing Silent Cal for his reticence,” a history of the dinner notes.
For years, the White House Correspondents Dinner was an annual affair for journalists, not yet a glamorous, Ivy League-dominated profession in the early days. It came to be regarded as an event where reporters who covered the White House could mingle with the people they wrote about, break the ice, and perhaps acquire some new sources. The New York Times described the WHCA dinner of yore as “hoary ritual” for the press. It was peopled in part by old-fashioned pressies such as the Times-Picayune‘s late Edgar A. Poe, a courtly southerner who was friendly with Richard Nixon and Huey Long, and after whom an award given at the dinner is named. It chugged along in this un-glitzy fashion until 1987, when, in the midst of the Iran-Contra affair, the late Michael Kelly, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, brought as his guest Fawn Hall, the document-shredding secretary of Colonel Oliver North. In those innocent days, Fawn Hall qualified as a celebrity by dowdy Washington’s then-modest standards. The L.A. Times reported “some gawking” and called it a “social coup” for Kelly (who later died while serving as a reporter during the Iraq war).
Slowly, the dinner evolved into a glitzy, star-studded evening—albeit gradually. As late as 1990, the biggest celebrity of the evening was Marla Maples, Donald Trump’s second wife, who was largely credited with playing a very active role in the demise of his first marriage. Washington Post reporter Roxanne Roberts wrote that Maples “eclipsed everyone, including the First Couple, the Cabinet, mayors, generals, administration bigwigs.” Quaint, but when you consider that the other celebrity guests that year were Virginia Governor Doug Wilder and Barbara Bush’s stepmother, understandable.
The guest list wasn’t the only thing that evolved. The unwritten “singe don’t burn” rule eventually was dropped—the entertainment became increasingly brutal and partisan. Stephen Colbert’s blistering jokes about President George W. Bush one year actually evoked some gasps from the crowd. The most incendiary entertainer was Wanda Sykes. It was 2009 and President Obama was in the White House. Traditionally, as the late Christopher Hitchens observed, the guest of honor, the president, is supposed to be the butt of the jokes. Hitchens pointed out that Sykes, by contrast, trafficked in Moveon.Org rhetoric. Of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, Sykes remarked, “I hope his kidneys fail.” Cute.
There are several reasons that the White House Correspondents Dinner deserves to die: One is that in a Washington already overflowing with venom, nasty jokes of the sort that have been prevalent at the dinner only add to the toxicity. Second, can you really see eager journalists trying to cultivate sources, or, vice versa, White House officials making nice with a media that clearly hate them? The longstanding purpose of the dinner has evaporated. But these aren’t the only reasons.
In November, the American voter (I know, I know about the popular vote) said that they’d had enough of the Washington establishment. The White House Correspondents Dinner, with its first cousins from New York and Hollywood, is the epitome of this inbred, self-regarding culture. It is time for these self-appointed mandarins to go into exile.