The first White House Correspondents’ Dinner was held in 1921, at the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C., a couple blocks north of the presidential residence. The event’s purpose was practical: to inaugurate the new officers of the group that had been formed to advocate for the interests of the journalists who kept the public informed about the doings of the American presidency. The dinner involved just 50 guests, who, in addition to the business of the evening, sang songs and made jokes and managed to have, as one attendee put it, “such fun as the Prohibition Era afforded.”
The event, like so many other things in Washington, has since expanded: Today there are many more participants—some 3,000 people, a mix of journalists, politicians, and assorted power players, of the Beltway and beyond—and also more pomp, and also more circumstance. (Much more circumstance: The thing, all in all, clocks in at more than 3 hours.) The dinner has also expanded thematically: It now bills itself as a general celebration of the First Amendment—and of the broader fact that “freedom” and “freedom of the press” are effectively the same thing. In the process, the WHCD has become its own kind of media event: a reliable source of cable-news clips and Saturday-evening Twitter fodder and Sunday-morning conversation, often by way of the comedian who is invited to roast the journalists and the people they cover with the twin efficiencies of a cavernous ballroom and a live cable feed.