No single event marks our political culture more self-involved as the endless, circular, circuitive yearly debate about the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, a.k.a. Nerd Prom, a.k.a, the one night a year when journalists toast the president, a.k.a. the Hollywoodization of Washington, a.k.a, Tammy Haddad's Garden Party.
The event itself , I think, is less controversial than all of the peripheral interest. It's a long dinner, followed by journalism awards, followed by 15 minutes of comedy from the President, followed by an entertainer who tends to be accomplished enough in life not to care about the ego concerns of the White House Correspondents Association, which hosts the dinner.
Those of us who've been to the dinner before have gotten use to the wrote rhetoric about its appropriateness. This year, in case we needed to be reminded, the New York University journalism scold Jay Rosen lobbed acerbic tweets at journalists all day. I can claim innocence - I was about more than 1,000 miles away from Washington, D.C. when Wanda Sykes called Rush Limbaugh the 20th hijacker and wished that he was dying of kidney disease. I watched, of course, on C-SPAN. And I thought she was funny, despite that one unfunny, ill-advised, quite contrived construction.
That wasn't the most dangerous joke of the night, actually. The distinction for that honor goes to Jay Leno's writers, who cooked up a monolog for Barack Obama. He noted that he knew most of the people in the room were people who had covered him on the campaign. Then he said that he knew that all of them voted for him. White House correspondents are touchy about the bias thing.
Sykes' Limbaugh clip wasn't dangerous, despite the "oooos" it provoked in the crowd - and more on that in the minute. It was dumb. No one in the audience - especially that audience - would ever compare the speech acts of a conservative radio talk show host to the terrorists who killed many thousands of Americans. It's little appreciated, most of these journalists were in New York and Washington on 9/11, most of them were directly affected by the destruction in some way, and most are keen enough to draw the moral distinction between an over-the-top but unremarkable pop-off by Limbaugh ("I hope the President fails") and the presence of evil incarnate on American soil. Even as humor, Sykes' construction just didn't work. Her punchline was about Limbaugh's use of Oxycontin - ha, ha, he overslept on 9/11, but that was lost the absurdity of the set-up.
I thought the rest of Sykes' routine was quite funny and well thought-out, a mixture of her own modern Carlin-esque form and enough insider references to show us that she did her homework and took her assignment seriously.
Recapitulating all of this is necessary because the post-mortems inevitably become part of our partisan heritage.
Outrageous liberal journalists chose an outrageous liberal who shared their views and who CLEARLY LAUGHED at her libelous joke about Rush Limbaugh... and see, see, see the President smirking? See how coarse Obama has made our political culture? Etc. Etc.
Come now. It has always been the central insight of the WHCA dinner that democracy often needs to be displayed, that sometimes, we need to step back and recognize that we are playing civil and social roles, and that humor is a great leveler. British politics has traditions like this; what other Western democracy, even, is capable?
Self-congratulation is warranted, but beside the point: these insider moments can be quite teachable.
Sometimes, the participants demonstrate revealing things when they change perspective. We knew that President Bush took his hunt for weapons of mass destruction seriously, even as he joked about the search for them in 2003, but it was unbelievable that the White House communications establishment did not take seriously - did not even think about - the larger ramifications of having the Commander in Chief peering under Oval Office couches (to laughter) while troops were dying by the bushel trying to find the real thing.
President Clinton was a fairly good sport, though, truth be told, he hated the dinners. He gamely listened as Don Imus made rough remarks about his sexual proclivities, and by the end of his presidency, he was angry enough to turn his own speech into an extended broadside against the journalism professions.
Obama decided to throw his chips all in, poking fun at the administration in the same way that late night comics do. His raunchiness was limited to a sly eyebrow and some nicely-chosen euphemisms when he discussed how he and David Axelrod were circling each other. (Don't forget, Dick Cheney made a Brokeback Mountain joke, too. This wasn't the first gay joke in the oeuvre!). Saturday night, Obama's Tim Geithner was precious. Larry Summers was old and nappy. Rahm Emanuel was a cuss word machine. Michael Steele was a poser who wanted more attention from brother Obama. John Boehner looks Orange. Obama himself was a little pompous. Hillary Clinton really wants to be President.
Pretty funny, but safe.
And safety is an important value here. It's OK to laugh at what it's OK to laugh at. Washington has an officially approved roster of punch lines, and Obama hit them all. We didn't learn that much about Obama from the dinner, which is fine. We can settle on the second other pleasures of the night, or even the criticisms, if you're inclined to dislike the coziness and the parties and the hype.
In private, Obama can be more caustic. He can be a little more blue and a little more sarcastic.
Here's hoping that he incorporates more of that into his future routines.