“American democracy is not a reality show,” the president said,
Yet one of the elements that has made the dinner different from a number of other First Amendment events on the D.C. calendar is the dinner’s size and scope, not to mention a kind of surreal nature to the mix of the Council on Foreign Relations and TMZ set. It’s why C-SPAN for years has provided red carpet coverage, even in the years when Biden’s predecessor, the reality show president Donald Trump, has skipped the event.
“It’s a scene,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said at ABC News’ pre-party at the Washington Hilton. Moments later, there was a bit of a commotion as photographers and iPhone wielding guests turned to the network’s step and repeat line to capture the arrival of Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes snapped a shot and then chatted with producer-screenwriter Danny Strong in a bit of amazement at the moment. One attendee, having scored the perfect snapshot of the two, excitedly told other guests, “Oh my God, check this off the list.”
Then a press rep asked Klain whether he wanted to join Kardashian and Davidson on the red carpet — and the answer was definitely no. But Klain did agree to chat with Kardashian, which he did for several minutes. The conversation, Klain said, was about Kardashian’s social media post of Biden’s commutation of the sentences of 75 people, as she has been an activist on criminal justice issues.
“She has a lot of reach,” Klain said, in reference to Kardashian’s followers.
In her remarks at the dinner, Gayle King even talked about arriving along with Drew Barrymore to the dinner’s main red carpet with but then being ordered off by photographers to make way for “Kete” — which stands for Kim and Pete. King and Barrymore complied, then agreed to go back to the photo line. “Do you think we came back? Yes. We wanted our picture,” King said.
The dinner itself is held in a subterranean ballroom of the brutalist Hilton, a massive, cavernous space that just barely fits the 2,600 or so attendees to the dinner. Just getting from the side entrance to a table on the other side can be a roughly 10-minute challenge of slipping through tight openings between tables and politely asking sitting guests to move in just a little more to get by.
There apparently have been some suggestions in the past of moving the dinner to a much larger space — say, the Washington Convention Center — but the WHCA rightly has chosen the tight venue over a more dreary setting. But this year the crowd crush naturally raised Covid concerns, forcing the requirement of proof of vaccination and a same-day negative test. That apparently was enough to satisfy many attendees’ concerns: Klain was one of the few wearing a mask, as he’s traveling with Biden on Sunday to Minnesota for Walter Mondale’s memorial service. Some attendees insisted on elbow bumps, but otherwise it was largely a return to the dinner the way it has always been — a crush of socializing.
After a dinner of petite filet, roasted sea bass and wild mushroom risotto — a definite upgrade from chicken banquet — the program began. What’s highlighted on TV typically are the president’s remarks and the comedian’s bit. The start of the program, though, was of pre-taped comedy bits from Billy Eichner and James Corden. The latter had a well-received bit about taking over for Jen Psaki in the White House briefing room, making one reporter sing his question and, at another point, griping, “You’re right. Jeff is a whiny little bitch.” That bit of inside humor — a reference to Reuters correspondent and former WHCA president Jeff Mason — got some of the biggest laughs of Corden’s material.
This year’s president, Steve Portnoy of CBS News Radio, pointed out that Biden’s first dinner was in 1974, when he was a still new senator from Delaware. The president, 79, gave the sign of the cross. Then Portnoy pointed out that the entertainer that year was Roy Clark. It was a bit of a reminder that as long as this tradition has gone on, organizers have made progress in learning what works and what doesn’t.
Biden’s remarks and Noah’s routine singed but didn’t burn, to use a phrase from another D.C. event, the Gridiron dinner. Striking just the right tone hasn’t been as easy as it sounds: Michelle Wolf’s 2018 routine is still remembered for the room’s discomfort as she went after, in a very personal way, then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was in the room. Conversely, there have been comics who also have been too tame.
The president landed some good lines in his schtick, led by his self-deprecating references. “Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon,” he said. “He’s having a really good year. I’m happy for him.” A joke about Florida Republicans attacks on The Walt Disney Co. didn’t quite land.
As expected, he got in a line about Fox News: “I know there are a lot of questions about whether we should gather here tonight because of COVID. Well, we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic. Plus, everyone has to prove they are fully vaccinated and boosted. Just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here. Vaccinated and boosted.” In his seat, Fox News’ John Roberts raised his fist in salutation.
Noah also got in a few digs at Fox News, as he did other networks. “It was fair,” Peter Doocy, White House correspondent for the network, said afterward. He seem to have been prepared, as he waved at the C-SPAN camera when Noah’s barbs focused on Fox News. “Always know where the camera is,” Doocy said.
In fact, as much as the dinner as held on to its traditions, it’s become a more slickly produced event, while some of the high-profile attendees have more of an awareness that their reactions will likely be caught on camera. Biden didn’t laugh at one of Noah’s jokes about Ginni Thomas, but he did when Noah quipped, that this was the “golden era of conspiracy theories –whether it’s the right thinking Trump can still win the 2020 election, or the left thinking Joe Biden can still win the 2024 election.”
As the evening ended, there was some buzz about the humor’s bite, but more so on the fact that the dinner was back, none too soon given the pent up demand for public events, as well as the more serious issue of the assault on press freedoms. One portion of the evening paid tribute to the reporters who already have been killed covering the war in Ukraine, and both Biden and Noah ended their remarks by comparing the U.S. to Russia and not taking the First Amendment for granted. “Trevor, the really good news is, now you get to roast the president of the United States, and unlike in Moscow you won’t go to jail,” Biden said.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said that the evening was “definitely a sense of restoration.” At the Paramount afterparty at the French Ambassador’s residence, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the evening “very affirming.”
The dinner was canceled during the past two years of the pandemic, and there were some notions that perhaps it was time to close the books on an event often maligned as too much of a Beltway schmooze fest. If anything, this year’s event showed that this curious tradition is, for the foreseeable future, here to stay.
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