tv review

Long Live the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

President Joe Biden and Roy Wood Jr. at the 2023 WHCD. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago, after comedian Michelle Wolf accused Sarah Huckabee Sanders of “burning facts and using the ash to create a perfect smoky eye” while hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a lot of hand-wringing ensued about whether the event, put on by the White House Correspondents’ Association starting in 1921, should continue. “Did Michelle Wolf Kill the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?” the New York Times asked two days later in what sounded like an accusation of fancy-gala homicide.

The answer, of course, was and remains no. Nothing can kill the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Not Wolf’s insistence on calling lying officials liars in front of an esteemed audience at the Washington Hilton. Not Donald Trump’s refusal to attend the event during his entire presidency. Not the cancellation of the WHCD for two years in a row because of COVID. Not even the fact that last year’s dinner, the first one in-person since the pandemic, really did turn into “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event” as host Trevor Noah promised.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner can’t die. It’s a cockroach in a gown from Rent the Runway elbowing people out of the way to get a selfie with Billy Eichner even though it’s never even seen Difficult People. It is Tithonus, the Greek god of immortality, wearing a bowtie and trying to finagle his way into a post-WHCD party at the home of the French ambassador. It is Michael Myers in most of the Halloween movies — if Michael Myers were a psychopath sitting at the Fox News table, or to put it another way, anyone willing to sit at the Fox News table. You can’t destroy this meeting of the media and political elite that primarily only certain people from D.C, L.A., and New York care about. As the performances by President Joe Biden and this year’s Correspondents’ Dinner host Roy Wood, Jr. argued last night, we shouldn’t want to destroy it either.

In keeping with tradition, both the president and invited comedian made speeches that concluded an evening reserved, in theory, for honoring the work of journalists and young people who aspire to join the field. While both men certainly threw some comedic darts dipped in cyanide at several expected targets — Tucker Carlson, Trump, Chinese spy balloons — they also devoted good chunks of their remarks to the significance of being able to hold a public event where jokes can be made about powerful people while powerful people sit there and take it.

“We’re here to send a message to the country, and quite frankly to the world, that the free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar, to a free society, not the enemy,” Biden said at the beginning of his speech, referring to himself, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, all of whom were in attendance. Biden being Biden, he hit all the hallmarks of a classic Biden speech: He referred to empty chairs at kitchen tables, used the word “folks” at least once, and closed by emphasizing how we can all restore the soul of this nation. But he also connected the dots between maintaining a functioning democracy and hosting events like this one, where people (theoretically) feel empowered to throw some punches at the ruling class.

“You make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority and, yes, even to laugh at authority without fear of intimidation,” he told the roomful of newsmakers and creators. “That’s what makes this nation strong.”

Biden got in a few blows at the expense of others as well as himself. “I believe in the First Amendment, and not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it,” he quipped in a self-own about his age.

“They say I’m over the hill. Don Lemon would say I’m a man in his prime,” he said in another age-related comment directed at the CNN anchor who was fired earlier this week, in part because of sexist comments in which he suggested that women are in their prime in “their 20s, 30s and maybe” — I feel compelled to emphasize this maybe  — “in their 40s.” (Wood was more blunt about Lemon. “Speaking of assholes,” he casually noted, “Don Lemon is out of a job.”)

“We want everyone to have fun tonight, but please be safe,” Biden cautioned the WHCD attendees. ”If you find yourself disoriented or confused, either you’re drunk or Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

Biden’s comedic timing may not have been quite as sharp as that guy he used to work with, President Barack Obama, but that’s historically true of most people who speak at the dinner, including some of the comedians. (Wow, Jay Leno just popped into my head for reasons that are surely a coincidence.) But Biden did well, especially once he let the jokes fly. From my perch in front of C-Span, he seemingly was received in the room with a decent amount of warmth and laughs.

As is often the case when it comes to the comedian, Wood’s barbs were greeted with more sobriety, perhaps because the guests — political figures and heads that often talk on CNN and MSNBC — didn’t want to be perceived as over-schadenfreude-ing. But the discomfort only made Wood’s jokes seem more necessary. “Don Lemon can’t even accurately report a story about Don Lemon,” The Daily Show correspondent joked, referring to the discrepancies between Lemon’s account of his axing and CNN’s. Cut to the crowd, where MSNBC Capitol Hill correspondent Garrett Haake could be seen visibly holding back a laugh.

“This is America, we don’t pass laws,” Wood told a ballroom full of people who are in charge of passing laws. “You make a promise to voters, and then you don’t do it.”

The highlight of Wood’s set were the jokes he made about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently made headlines for accepting extravagant gifts from Harlan Crow — the real name, we swear to God, of a prominent Republican donor. “Do you understand how rich you have to be to buy a Supreme Court justice? A Black one, on top of that. There’s only two in stock, and Harlan Crow owns half the inventory,” Wood said. “We can all see Clarence Thomas, but he belongs to billionaire Harlan Crow — and that’s what an NFT is,” he added in a perfectly structured callback to earlier in his address. People in the room laughed at punch line, as they should have. That joke is so well-crafted it belongs in both the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

If Wood made some members of the media squirm, he won them over at the end of his speech by returning to the same theme Biden emphasized: the importance of maintaining a free press in a landscape where journalists are getting laid off right, left, and center. “You never hear about the multimillionaire executives reducing their salaries,” he noted in a comment about all the reporters who have recently lost their jobs. That probably would have gotten a standing ovation if everyone in the room hadn’t been so concerned about offending any potential multimillionaire executives who had just finished their desserts.

Wood, who once worked in radio news himself, also made a point of honoring his late father, Roy Wood Sr., a pioneering journalist, and his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, a civil-rights activist and college administrator who attended the dinner. And he made sure to emphasize the importance of supporting local journalism: “Most national stories in this country were, at some point, local stories.”

Overall, this was a less flippant White House Correspondents’ Dinner than the ones we got during the Obama years, perhaps because there’s an understanding that the stakes of censorship are too high, and although maybe I’m being too optimistic, so are the stakes of becoming overly apologetic toward those whose thin skins may be slightly irritated by the comedy. Everyone who considered it outrageous that Huckabee Sanders could be insulted in such a high-profile setting needs to be reminded that she’s now the governor of Arkansas, where so far she’s banned the use of the word “Latinx,” rolled back child labor laws, and recently endorsed koozies lauding the election of “real women,” a blatant attempt to debase the trans community while trolling Bud Light. Everyone concerned that this woman or democracy itself might have been imperiled by assertions that her eye shadow is composed of deceit particles — which it might be, has there been an investigation? — needs to be reminded that it’s okay to lob some honest, revelatory jokes at our leaders, especially when those people engage in behavior that screams to be ridiculed.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner may be a flawed attempt to do that. (One example of its flaws: The terrible sketch featuring the Property Brothers renovating the White House press room.) But it’s a regularly scheduled attempt, and both President Biden and Wood were convincing and funny enough to make it seem like something more meaningful than a prom for D.C.’s nerds.

Long Live the White House Correspondents’ Dinner