Why Conan O’Brien Is A Boring—But Revealing—Host For White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

Ed Henry, the senior White House correspondent for Fox News who is the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, announced this morning that Conan O’Brien, who’s currently hosting a late-night show on TBS, will host the Association’s dinner this April. Ever since Stephen Colbert hosted the dinner in 2006 and turned it into a brutal critique of President Bush’s performance as president, the Association has made a series of relatively safe choices who are unlikely to make the president and his wife, members of the press, or anyone else particularly uncomfortable. O’Brien, judging by the evidence from his experience hosting the dinner in 1995, knows the score, though there is a pretty good joke about Ira Magaziner, who was President Clinton’s chief health-care policy adviser, having a 6,000-ingredient recipe for veal piccata, in reference to the length of his health care reform bill, which had died the previous year:

But it’s too bad the Association seems to have decided that their choices are between skewering the president and going relatively bland and toothless. There are other ways to be funny than to make the head guest in the room feel uncomfortable, and I wish the Association would think a little bit more creatively about their host choice on that score—and on other ones as well. Since the dinner began having hosts in 1944, only three women have ever hosted the event solo, Paula Poundstone in 1992, Elayne Boosler in 1993, and then no one else until Wanda Sykes in 2009. Why not have Amy Poehler break up that drought a little bit and host in character as Leslie Knope, whose good-government and love of Washington would provide a much kinder framework than Colbert’s to satirize the event she’d be summing up? Want someone who might be able to riff on the idea of President Obama as a symbol and as a man, but who probably wouldn’t go too politically brutal? Why not ask Kevin Hart, in part in recognition of his huge stand-up success—and in part because a black comedian hasn’t hosted the dinner solo since Sinbad in 1991?

I don’t mind O’Brien, but he’s a choice who represents the problems of the Association itself—white, male, catering at this point to a limited audience, and unlikely to offend anybody. His announcement comes at a moment when, as Dave Weigel has pointed out, Henry is throwing a temper tantrum because members of the Association weren’t allowed to take pictures of President Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods, a fight that illustrates the White House press corps’ frequent focus on minutae and color over substance. I’m not saying thinking more creatively and independently about who is going to host the Association’s dinner will come close to fixing all the problems of the White House press corps. But it might help the Association consider who it wants to represent the organization on that dias, what role it thinks its’ members have, and its own capacity to take a joke—and criticism.