The White House Correspondents' Dinner Is Toothless and Deserves to Die

The chummy, joke-filled gathering of DC elites seems to finally be on its way out.

21 November 2018, 8:30am

Barack Obama and Keegan-Michael Key at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner. Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

On Monday, the White House Correspondents' Association, the organization of journalists most famous for putting on the White House Correspondents' Dinner, announced that the annual gathering will be ditching the tradition of a comedian speaker. Instead, author Ron Chernow will "share his lively, deeply researched perspectives on American politics and history," according to a statement from WHCA President Olivier Knox. In other words, forget the controversy of last year and Michelle Wolf's cracks about eyeshadow—this new-look WHCD is going to be a snoozer.

That's probably for the best.

The WHCA responded to last year's kerfluffle over Wolf's anti-Trump bits by condemning the comedian, and to critics, this move seemed to be about ducking another spat while missing out on an opportunity to deliver some deserved barbs to the president. Wolf herself responded to the news by tweeting, "The @whca are cowards. The media is complicit. And I couldn't be prouder." She wasn't the only one who saw this decision as a capitulation. David Litt, a former Barack Obama speechwriter, called the move "a surrender to a president's unprecedented attack on the free press" in a CNN op-ed. At ThinkProgress, Jessica Goldstein argued that a comedy-free WHCD would be largely pointless: "That a comedian can stand in front of the president and the highest-ranking members of his administration and mock them without the fear that they’ll be thrown in Guantanamo Bay for their trouble is the crux of this whole black-tie song-and-dance. It’s one of those signs of a healthy, functioning democracy."

It's true that there have been notable WHCD monologues where the host actually roasted the most powerful people in the world to their faces. Standouts include Norm MacDonald's caustic routine in 1997 and Stephen Colbert's incisive takedown of the Bush administration in 2006. But the event has more often been toothless—the first modern comic to perform there was Bob Hope, and Colbert's successor was the milk-bland Rich Little.

Even when the jokes were good, there was always something a bit off about the political elites rubbing elbows with celebrities and journalists at "nerd prom." Obama could tell a great joke, but he also presided over a secretive administration that prosecuted whistleblowers; arguably the journalists assigned to cover his White House shouldn't have provided a forum for him to be goofy and fun.

If there was always tension between the good times of the WHCD and the seriousness of the actual job of covering the presidency, it was stretched to the breaking point by Donald Trump. The president has called the press the "enemy of the people," praised a Republican congressman who body-slammed a journalist, and is engaged in an ongoing spat with CNN's Jim Acosta over whether he should be banned from press briefings. Trump's press secretaries have taken the practice of lying to the media to dizzying new heights, and just on Tuesday his White House issued an grotesque statement largely defending the rulers of Saudi Arabia after Saudi agents brutally executed a dissident who wrote columns for the Washington Post. Compared to all of these outrages, Trump's decision to skip the WHCD and instead mock it in front of his supporters at rallies is a mild offense against the principle of a free press.

Had the WHCA booked a comedian as usual for its dinner, the results would have been familiar to anyone who's turned on a television in the last two years. The mixing of painfully earnest politics and comedy has become so rote that Wolf even mocked the phenomenon on her own Netflix show. Maybe given everything that Trump has done since becoming president, making fun of him and his administration is not an adequate response, especially for an association of journalists. Maybe booking a comedian to perform in front of a largely anti-Trump crowd isn't an act of bravery, but just another way to affirm the prejudices of both sides in America's never-ending culture war.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner has already been mostly ditched by celebrities in the Trump age, and there will be even less glamour now that it stars Ron Chernow (sorry Ron). Perhaps someday it'll be either entirely scrapped or else transform into something too boring for anyone to care about. Both those outcomes seem fine. In past years it was often just a chance for the powerful to glad-hand each other; these days it's at best a way to signal opposition to Trump's authoritarianism. But White House journalists have done a terrific job reporting on the things that the administration is doing and saying—their hosting of a comedian to deliver a few quips about the president at a fancy dinner doesn't have anything to do with that mission, and the exercise has been increasingly pointless for years. The rest of us should just be thankful no one is asking we care about the schmoozefest any more.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.