You might have noticed a few things missing from Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner, and if you were there, you could feel it.
The annual gala was void of the highly anticipated Hollywood A-listers seen in the Bush and Obama years, safe from controversial dinner entertainment, free from Trump and his staff, and consequently, rid of edginess.
Journalist Scott Simon explained the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and D.C. best during a Friday night pre-dinner party, when he relayed to the audience at the Intercontinental Hotel an observation from former West Wing actor Rob Lowe. For Hollywood, the dinner is a chance to be taken seriously, to be seen scarfing down surf ’n turf and sharing polite chuckles with powerful policymakers. For official Washington, it gets to pretend that the drudgery of legislative wrangling, administrative rulemaking and filing stories on deadline is actually glamorous.
While the evening still featured tuxedos, ball gowns and all-you-can-drink gin and tonics, the glitz and glam was mainly filled by what felt like an IRL Twitter feed with Instagram filters — journalists and politicos exchanging opinions and humble brags while showcasing the best version of themselves.
That’s not to say it was unenjoyable as Twitter can be. The atmosphere was much friendlier as former cabinet secretaries Madeleine Albright and Jeh Johnson, and members and former members of Congress Steny Hoyer, Jeff Flake and freshman Lauren Underwood, among others, mingled with journos and advocacy professionals, sharing smiles, small talk and optimistic curiosity ahead of the dinner’s entertainment — a history nerd.
Typically the president shows up to the dinner, tells a few jokes (at both his expense and his “friends” in the media), and then a professional comedian delivers a keynote that singes more than burns… unless it’s Stephen Colbert who took a metaphorical flamethrower to the room in 2006.
Then we spend the next few days, if we’re lucky, watching the media and its critics (roughly 10 percent of them operating in good faith) wringing their hands over some “controversial” remark the comedian made and wondering aloud whether this whole cozy affair is bad for democracy.
Watch: Ron Chernow speaks at WHCA Dinner
Author and historian Ron Chernow is a far cry from some of the incendiary comedians featured at previous dinners. Last year Michelle Wolf burned the house down. But following her grilling of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump forbid any administration officials from even showing up.
Of course that didn’t stop ex-officials like Gary Cohn, Trump’s former National Economic Council director. Or former press secretary Sean Spicer, who set off the most flashbulbs on the red carpet, passing for the biggest celebrity in attendance thanks in no small part to daily press briefings (remember those?) and Melissa McCarthy.
Even staunch Trump allies like Rep. Matt Gaetz decided to make an appearance. The Florida Republican could be seen at the Washington Post pre-party listening politely while a woman explained to him his unique position as a Trump confidant and implored him to use his powers for good.
Chernow, on the other hand, delightfully weaved humor into a historical timeline of past (and present) presidents and their relationships with the evening’s guest of honor, the White House press.
But not before poking a little fun at himself.
“I confess that I was surprised when I received the invitation to speak here tonight. I mean, I knew they weren’t approaching me as an international sex symbol...”
This year, amused guests listened with smirks and smiles instead of side-eye and awkward stares exchanged last year when Wolf took down Sanders as she sat at the head table just a few feet away. And Trump, although nowhere in sight for the third year in a row, still made himself visible, holding a rally at the same time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and boasting about a “massive crowd” on Twitter.
His absence didn’t keep Chernow from making jabs and alluding to the similarity between the 45th president and George Washington’s tense relationships with the press, but making it clear that the first president handled it better.
“Washington felt maligned and misunderstood by the press, but he never generalized that into a vendetta against the institution”
Chernow’s remarks received a standing ovation as he brought the White House Correspondents Dinner back to where it was initially intended to be — a celebration of the First Amendment. After what was a successful night for the WHCA, dodging criticism from dinner guests and association members, the question remains if a new precedent has been set.
If Chernow’s performance last night is any indication, we’re willing to bet on it.
Watch: Banging gravel, pseudoscience and texts from mom: Congressional Hits and Misses