You have to give it to Donald Trump. Not for pushing North Korea towards negotiations, or for holding China to account over dumping low-grade steel onto the American market, or even for healing the diplomatic breach between France and the United States—but for missing the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on Saturday night.
People accuse Trump of being capricious and having a poor sense of judgement, but he’s consistent when it comes to the Correspondents’ Dinner. The crassness of Michelle Wolf’s jokes makes you wonder whether it’s the press, not the president, whose judgement is askew. Trump dodged the dinner last year too, and is presumably already filling his calendar for the next two years. This year, Trump addressed a rally in Michigan.
‘Is this better than that phony Washington White House correspondents thing?’ Trump asked the crowd. Speaking of the press, he said, ‘These people, they hate your guts.’
Anyone doubting the accuracy of Trump’s judgement on that point should read the Washington Post’s coverage of the dinner. The dinner, Paul Farhi of the Post said, ‘attracted about 3,000 journalists, random plus-ones and curious hangers-on, but the usual buzz around the event was reduced to a snore’. There were no ‘sitcom actors’, no ‘Olympians or supermodels or Real Housewives’, or any of the other policy titans who adorned the social calendar of the Obama White House. Instead of the ‘government-meets-Hollywood-meets-the-press glitzfest of yore’, this year’s dinner was more like a ‘dressed-up Kiwanis Club dinner’.
You could fuel a populist insurgency on the hi-octane snobbery in the Post’s report. The world divides into VIPs—politicians, journalists, and celebrities—and the ‘random’ and ‘curious’ losers beyond the velvet rope. People like you, in other words, the little people whose job is to be the audience. What a ‘snore’ the Kiwanis Clubs are, with their unpaid service work on behalf of children and the aged. What a pitiful, plebeian lack of ‘buzz’ they have, with their selfless donation of 18.5m unpaid hours of work per year, and their generation of $100m for charity. What suckers they are, for not knowing what the real action is about.
To what are the ‘plus ones’ and ’hangers-on’ adding themselves and hanging on, if only for a night? Power, in its cultural and political form. There is only one glitzy element in the three-way ‘glitzfest’ between government, Hollywood and the press. It’s not government, and despite evident delusions to the contrary, it’s not the press, either. The television actors, Olympians and supermodels are attracted to these events for the same reason as the press: the hope that power rubs off on those closest to it. What really rubs off is the taint of servility, and the stink of pride.
As the quality of America’s political life has declined, the quantity of obnoxious jokes has risen. How, exactly, is the dignity of office served when, as at the 2009 dinner, President Obama was seen to smile when Wanda Sykes joked that Rush Limbaugh was the ‘twentieth hijacker’ on 9/11; or when, as at the 2016 dinner, Larry Wilmore called Barack Obama ‘my nigga’, and the president took it as one big inside joke?
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner reflects the worst of the old media and the old way of doing politics: the sycophancy of the press, the mock-humility of the roasted, the relentless vanity of both parties at feeling like winners, and for getting to rub against some ‘glitz’ too. And the same Washington media, most of it pro-Democratic, then presumes to lecture the country about its morals. Like Trump said in Michigan, they’re ‘very dishonest people’. Their hypocrisy grants Trump and his team a big moral victory. For the president is an honest hypocrite. You’d do the same in my shoes, he says. Judging from the squalid behavior of the press corps, that judgement is right. First they preach the president’s wickedness, and then they complain that he doesn’t attend the dinner.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner symbolizes everything that is wrong in the collusion between showbiz, government and the media. The dinner isn’t about speaking truth to power. It’s about sweet nothings and mutual regard, and throughly corrupts the relationship between the government and the press. Trump’s refusal to play along to the media script is doing us all a favor. The media might do us one, and themselves too, by abandoning this annual admission that the price of their principles is a chicken dinner. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner should end, because it’s making a joke out of all of us.