The Slow, Awkward Death of the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Michelle Wolf’s biting mockery of it was only the latest reminder: The annual event’s contradictions have become too heavy to bear.

Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

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.

The Correspondents’ Dinner that took place on Saturday evening—the last Saturday in April, as per longstanding tradition—was, at least from the media-event perspective, the biggest one ever. That was in large part because the event’s invited comedian this time around, the rising star Michelle Wolf, took her “roast” mandate to a new extreme: She mocked, among others (CNN kept count): Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus, Michael Cohen, Scott Pruitt, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chris Christie, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Vladimir Putin, multiple anchors and correspondents from CNN, Fox News as a whole, Bill O’Reilly in particular, MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, print journalism, television journalism, journalism in general.

“Should have done more research before you got me to do this,” Wolf said at one point, as a joke about pussy hats was met with a mix of shocked guffaws and stony silence by the live crowd.

The most striking moment of Wolf’s set, though, was when the comedian tore into the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was representing the Trump administration on the dinner’s stage, and sitting just a few feet away from Wolf. With biting jokes like, “I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.” And: “[Sarah Sanders] burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” And: “Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know. Aunt Coulter.”

The event’s camera, magnifying the stage’s proceedings for those in the back of the ballroom, dutifully panned to Sanders, who remained notably stoic. A smattering of applause broke out at the jokes; there were a few gasps. Most of all, though, there was an enormous ballroom made silent by the power of awkwardness.

Overnight, accordingly—even more so than for previous events—Wolf’s performance became a matter of conversation, rendering the Correspondents’ Dinner into another kind of celebration of what the First Amendment is all about: debate. To some, Wolf’s set was evidence of the current impossibility of civility in American discourse—a series of jokes that bit with too much bite, that crossed lines, that misunderstood the distinction between “roasting” and “bullying,” that conflated “punching up” with “punching the person sitting right next to you.” To others, it was an inspired piece of comic criticism, operating in the manner of Stephen Colbert at the 2006 Correspondents’ Dinner: Wolf was speaking truth through comedy. She was addressing a ballroom full of black-tied grimace emojis, essentially, and the awkwardness of it all—the tension of it all—was the point. Because Wolf wasn’t, in the end, speaking to those 3,000 guests, or for them; she was speaking to all the people who weren’t in that room. She was the one, in her own way, holding power to account.

She was also highlighting the existential tension at the heart of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. During a time of anxiety about the fate of essential democratic norms, the dinner has served, in its awkward way, as evidence on the other side: as a reminder that some of those norms, particularly when they involve cocktail parties, can in fact have a remarkable staying power. The current president—who might well, the lore goes, have decided to run for the office after being mocked by his predecessor at the 2011 WHCD—has for two years declined to attend the dinner. (“Is this better than that phony Washington White House Correspondents’ Dinner?” Trump asked the crowd at the rally he held in Michigan as the Washington event was taking place.) The A-list celebrities who once walked the event’s red carpet (or, in this case, a step-and-repeat assembled near the escalators of the basement lobby of the Washington Hilton) have largely stopped showing up.

And yet the dinner carries on, expanded and expended, trying to answer that most loaded of questions: What does it mean to both hold power and, at the same time, to be charged with holding power to account?

On Saturday evening, in the International Ballroom of the Hilton, that question got an uncomfortable answer. Which was: Ask again later. There are two Correspondents’ Dinners, essentially, that take place each last-Saturday-of-April, and each conflicts with each other. On the one hand, there’s the dinner for the people in the room, the stuff of self-congratulation and ceremonial pomp. The United States Marine Band and the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard kicked off the dinner’s proceedings by marching down the ballroom’s central aisle with a presentation of the colors: flags, music, ritual. Ty Herndon sang the national anthem (while the crowd listened silently, hands over their hearts) and then “God Bless America” (while some in the crowd joined in). Margaret Talev, the current president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, gave a rousing speech that included the line, “We reject efforts by anyone, especially our elected leaders, to paint journalism as un-American.”

There were also roasted-beet salads with honeyed goat cheese, and dessert trays (panna cotta, cheesecake, tartlets featuring raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries) that formed a pretty assemblage of reds, whites, and blues. There were dinner plates featuring both monkfish and filets of beef: the surf and the turf, the this and the that, entrees suggesting that, despite the evidence to the contrary, it is possible to have it both ways. There was Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American social activist who was imprisoned for nearly three years for those activities, speaking passionately, via a prerecorded video, about her ordeal—and the journalistic work that led to her liberation. There were journalism awards presented to reporters who cover the White House. There were announcements of the recipients of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association scholarships—the college students who may come to serve as the next generation of White House correspondents. “This night is about you, and what you’ve accomplished,” Talev told them.

But then, there was also the screening of a satirical video featuring cartoonish renderings of President Trump and his aides. And another video, this one featuring Paul Ryan declaring, “Tonight, I say cheers to the First Amendment,” and then proceeding to make a joke about John Boehner and weed.

And, then: There was Wolf. She, on her own, was the other Correspondents’ Dinner. She was the public face of the event—the element of the dinner, apologies to the strawberry tartlets, that will be talked about and remembered. She was the star of the show. And she was the one who emerged, whether you loved her set or hated it, as the person who could most obviously claim to have engaged, that evening, in journalism’s enduring mandate: to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

If one person can eclipse an entire evening’s worth of celebration—the military show, the scholarships, the awards, the urgent discussion of the profound necessity of press freedom—that’s a good sign that something should change about the evening. There’s the Correspondents’ Dinner as an event, and the Correspondents’ Dinner as a norm; both would benefit, at this point, from scaling back to become something smaller, more intimate, more meaningful—less about celebrity, less about comedy, and more about journalism. A smaller dinner would be more boring, definitely, but also more in line with journalism’s own best vision of itself: as a watchdog, as a safeguard, as an extension of the curiosity of the American people.

The Correspondents’ Dinner, after all, has long been a matter of controversy, an event criticized by press critics both professional and amateur for its tendency to erode, in its flurry of glad-handing and elbow-rubbing, the lines separating journalists from the people they are meant to hold to account. What the critics are acknowledging implicitly is that journalism has expanded in another way since those first White House correspondents gathered in 1921: The press has become, also, the media. CNN anchors and New York Times reporters do their work within a vast system that mingles news and entertainment. They exist in a world in which many journalists, by default—many of the journalists, at least, who gather in the International Ballroom of the Washington Hilton every April—double as celebrities. It’s time to acknowledge that and proceed accordingly. Power and victimhood, jokes and seriousness, steak and fish: You can have it both ways, until you can’t.