Jokes, glamour and a try for normalcy as correspondents’ dinner returns
By Peter Baker
The jokes were back, the celebrities were back, the president was back. The only question was whether COVID was back.
After six years of strife followed by disease, the Washington press corps returned to what passes for normal in the nation’s capital Saturday night as it resumed its annual tradition of celebrating itself in gala fashion with the leader of the free world.
President Joe Biden headlined the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, that see-and-be-seen bacchanalia of Washington journalists and power brokers dressed up in tuxedos and gowns to spend an evening schmoozing, networking, gossiping, preening and peacocking before returning to the office Monday to savage one another again.
Biden was the first president to attend since 2016 because his predecessor, Donald Trump, boycotted the event during his term as part of his war with the “fake news” media that he deemed the “enemy of the people.” It was also the first time the dinner had been held at all since 2019, after being canceled the past two years because of the pandemic — and many wondered whether it was tempting fate to crowd 2,600 people into a packed hotel ballroom as a surge of infections swept through the city’s elite.
Trevor Noah, the official comedian of the night, joked that he was honored “to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event.”
He razzed the organizers for proceeding with the dinner at the Washington Hilton. “Do you read any of your own newspapers?” he asked, adding: “You guys spent the last two years telling everyone the importance of wearing masks and avoiding large indoor gatherings. Then the second someone offers you a free dinner, you all turn into Joe Rogan.”
Biden offered a more serious reason for going through with the dinner despite the health concerns. “We’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic,” he said.
In fact, the president’s decision to attend was subject to second-guessing, both inside and outside the White House. Just weeks ago, more than 70 guests tested positive for the coronavirus after the Gridiron Dinner, a similar though smaller Washington gathering, including several members of Biden’s Cabinet. Just this past week, Vice President Kamala Harris and Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, both tested positive.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, opted against going to the dinner because of the obvious danger. Organizers required all guests to be vaccinated, boosted and test negative before attending, although few wore masks besides the serving staff. As a concession to the potential peril, Biden, who at 79 is in a high-risk age group, skipped the dinner and came only for the speaking portion of the evening.
But his presence was meant to represent a return to normalcy after Trump’s war on the news media. While Biden, like other presidents, has complained about his coverage, sometimes snapping at reporters who ask questions he does not care for, aides said he intended his decision to attend to be a reaffirmation of his support for a free press.
“The free press is not the enemy of the people,” Biden said. “Far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth.” He cited in particular those who have given their lives reporting from the battlefields of Ukraine, a reminder, he said, of the importance of journalism.
Still, the president gently chided journalists, urging them to avoid sensationalism and trivialization. “The First Amendment grants a free press extraordinary protection,” he said, “but with it comes, as many of you know, a very heavy obligation to seek the truth as best you can, not to inflame or entertain but to illuminate and educate.”
“There’s incredible pressure on you all to deliver heat instead of shed light,” he said, adding, “American democracy is not a reality show.”
The correspondents’ association made a point of adding a serious note to the evening’s festivities by honoring two Black female pioneers of the White House press corps, Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, who were two of only three African American journalists regularly reporting on the White House in the 1950s. It also paid tribute to journalists killed in Ukraine and singled out the family of Austin Tice, a reporter who was abducted in Syria in 2012.
But the event otherwise resumed its status as Washington’s premier exercise in excess, bracketed by days of fancy, expensive, alcohol-filled parties held across the city late into the night, bringing members of the political class together with the journalists who cover them and the occasional fixtures of Hollywood, Wall Street and other American institutions.
At the main dinner, the president is typically expected to deliver humorous remarks, and Biden obliged, although he kept them briefer than those of some of his predecessors. He said he was glad to be with a roomful of journalists, the only people “with a lower approval rating than I have,” and said it was good to be back after six years during which “we had a horrible plague followed by two years of COVID.”
He said he had expected to run into opposition for his agenda in the Senate, but “I just hoped it would be from Republicans.” He teased the House Republican leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who was revealed on an audio recording obtained by two New York Times reporters to have talked about asking for Trump’s resignation after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape,” Biden said.
Noah offered equal-opportunity mockery of everyone, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Fox News, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and CBS News. He teased Biden over inflation, gas prices, his gaffes and his failures to push his proposals through Congress. He said that Russia was upset at Biden’s comment that President Vladimir Putin should be removed from power “until someone explained to them that none of the stuff Biden wants actually gets done.”
But he contrasted Biden’s willingness to be skewered with Trump’s refusal to participate in the dinner — the only president never to attend since Calvin Coolidge made the first appearance in 1924. “It’s actually nice to once again have a president who’s not afraid to come to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and hear jokes about himself,” Noah said.
“I stood here tonight and I made fun of the president of the United States and I’m going to be fine,” he said. Turning to Biden, he added, “I am going to be fine, right?” Biden smiled.