As I write this Monday afternoon, were in the third phase of chest-beating over a comedian playing blue at Saturday evenings White House Correspondents Dinner.
Its an annual affair, both the dinner and the criticism, but this year were cycling through phases of post-partum regret faster than ever before, from its all in the spirit of fun to dont take yourself so seriously to its time to get a musical guest, or a juggler, or maybe a mime.
To recap, Daily Show regular Michelle Wolf is taking heat for crossing an invisible line of acceptable criticism of the powers that be, especially those powers sitting a few feet away. There were the usual jokes about Trump who for the second year chose to be with the people in the heartland rather than speak, as most presidents do, at the dinner. In his place was Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There's no doubt Sanders lies and does so robotically without the decency to reveal a flicker of regret the way predecessor Sean Spicer did.
Still theres Sanders in her nice blue dress, having agreed to fill in the significance gap left by the presidents absence, absorbing incoming with a stiff upper lip, or smokey eye as Wolf would have it. It's fair to ask whether going beyond the maddening way Sanders does her job to comment on her makeup, her similarity to the ugliest character in The Handmaids Tale, and playing the Uncle Tom card makes a point against her, or the press countenancing it.
We want the president, or at least his stand-in, to drink our wine, eat our rare filet, laugh at the human condition, and leave understanding the roles each branch plays. That outcome is the reason the Gridiron Club dropped from its lineup a skit called Stormy Weather when they found out Trump and the first lady would be attending. The same principle works for the WHCD: We want Sanders to stop lying. We dont want to humiliate her and have her go away hurt.
In fairness to Wolf, shewas only doing as others have: acting as our surrogate to tweak people in power to the point of debasing themfor being in charge, for treating us like children, for withholding the truth. Its inevitable that every so often a performer will cross an invisible line. When it happens, its inevitable that the organization will feign surprise. Its also inevitable that the outrage will blow over. The dinner creates an elite problem over an elite affair that will be forgotten before the press starts competing for next years celebrity guests.
But this time, theres no room for error. Wolf was mild compared to Don Imus infamous screed shaming then president Bill Clinton for, in the radio talkers telling, having sex on astroturf in the back of his pickup truck with Hillary looking on.
But the ground under the press has shifted since 1996, so that Wolfs screed played into Trumps already ferocious battle against the enemy of the people in which he attacks the foundations of democracy from the courts to the FBI to the independent press. Until now, the president has had virtually no evidence to back up his allegations but hes glomming on big time to the "bust" of a dinner asExhibit A. And it could play to a wider group than just his base coming as it does with video of the press hobnobbing with those its supposed to cover in the depths of the swamp, in formal dress, painful footwear, and sweaty ambition. Its a sign of the time that this years guest of note was Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti.
Trump described the evening as an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy comedian totally bombed (couldn't even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!
For once, he has a point. The retort that Wolf was no worse than Trump, an excuse so overused kids employ it to justify not doing their homework, is lame. He goes low so we go low? And theres no percentage in doing it. Ask Marco Rubio and Jim Comey how fruitful it is to stoop to Trump's level. Because Trump introduced the p-word into politics doesn't mean it should be uttered from the podium of the White House Correspondents Dinner. Trade associations have raucous conventions all the time but the press isa constitutionally protected institution that needs to guard its position, not expose it to misinterpretation.
As it became obvious she was bombing, Wolf muttered that shehadnt researched her audience sufficiently. Correct, nor did she get vetted sufficiently. After Imus,the correspondents association wrote a formal letter of apology to the president and Clintons press secretary unsuccessfully pleaded with C-Span not to rebroadcast the dinner.
That hasnt happened yet here. Association president Margaret Talev, who gave a fine speech about a free press, defended Wolf as a talented comedian with a message to deliver while also lamenting that the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of the mission of a free press.
Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway, another target of Wolf, who said she had the perfect name in CONway, and should be felled by a tree, responded that the whole thing proved that the press is not out to get the story but to get Trump.
Thats not so, but why offer up ammunition? Talevs explanation didnt stop talk of overhauling the event, and allaying criticism that its am excuse for the press to celebrate ourselves and get high-ranking officials and Hollywood stars (the cast of Downton Abbey and Veep have come) to join us for a night on the town. The arms race to bribe celebrities with Oscar-like goodie bags, suites at the Four Seasons, and first-class flights has abated a bit since Trump boycotted the dinner and word traveled that the dinner was not that hot. George Clooney said he was surprised when his car pulled up to the Washington Hilton and not the White House.
To compensate, in recent years, theres more stage time given to the awarding of journalism scholarships. Its hardly enough. That $100,000 is dwarfed by the millions media companies spend on a night that politicians see mostly as an obligation, celebrities mostly as a disappointment.
The press sees it as something to apologize for. This president just isnt into it, except as something to use against the press.
On the night Washington was in black-tie for Wolfs lame routine, nine reporters were killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul. Thats who we need to honor. Talev admitted the evenings performer didnt support the mission of the press. Next year, the group needs to choose one that will or call the whole thing off.
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