Michelle Wolf was right.
Monday, the White House Correspondents’ Association announced that the featured speaker at the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Dinner will be Ron Chernow, historian best known to the masses as the author of a book on Alexander Hamilton that Lin-Manuel Miranda took on a very fateful vacation.
The standard practice is for the WHCA to choose a comedian for this task. Chernow is a deviation from that pattern, the choice of a skittish organization that does not seem to understand its role in a cultural moment when press freedom is consistently threatened and attacked by the president. But anyone who noticed how the WHCA handled criticism of the last comedian to have the gig could have seen this coming.
During her monologue at this year’s WHCD, Wolf did what all the comedians who’ve hosted the dinner have done: She roasted the president and top members of his administration. She also — correctly — made fun of the media for its role in Trump’s rise to the presidency. “You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him,” she said, before reminding the room and viewers at home that “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
She wasn’t the first comedian, or even the only one in recent memory, to perform under a president who either didn’t understand or care for her message. (See: Stephen Colbert and George W. Bush, 2006.) But she was the first to make comments so apparently searing that the WHCA felt the need to apologize for Wolf’s jokes. The ground zero for that outrage cycle was Wolf’s riff on White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
“I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Unlike a significant percentage of the things Sanders says during her press briefings, what Wolf said about Sanders was fundamentally true. Sanders does lie. She lies all the time! Just last week, she shared an obviously doctored video of CNN’s Jim Acosta’s interaction with a female White House intern, strategically sped up and slowed down to create the optical illusion of an assault. Which goes to another of Wolf’s insights: Sanders is, in fact, “very resourceful.”
President Trump did not attend the WHCD. But he watched it, or maybe someone just told him about it, because Trump — King Of Pots, High Priest Of Kettles — decried Wolf as “filthy.” “Put Dinner to rest, or start over!” he tweeted.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 30, 2018
The White House Correspondents’ Association did not issue a statement pointing out that while the president is welcome to disagree with a comedian, he is not — he should not — be able to silence her, or demand, like a tantrum-throwing royal, that the dinner he does not like either perish or be rebuilt from scratch. There was no formal announcement about the alarming and dangerous precedent such caving would set.
Instead, there was an apology. WHCA President Margaret Talev released a statement the following morning: “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
It’s worth noting that on the Friday before the dinner, after it was announced that Sanders would be attending in Trump’s place, The Daily Beast‘s Marlow Stern contacted Wolf for her reaction. “I’m just excited Sarah finally gets to go to prom,” she replied. No one from the WHCA stepped in to “honor civility” then.
Set aside, for the moment, the optics of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There are too many celebrities and the really famous ones don’t even mingle with anyone but each other, fine. The whole thing is ostentatious and over-the-top and sends the wrong message to Americans watching at home about the too-snuggly relations between political reporters and the politicians they cover, fair. All this money could be better spent on actual journalism, you’re not wrong.
But the point of the dinner is that it is able to occur exactly in this way: In a manner that is personally offensive to the president and his administration.
The ability to question, challenge, and even offend people in power — this is so obvious it is astonishing it needs to be articulated — is one of the vital freedoms the dinner is ostensibly designed to honor. That a comedian can stand in front of the president and the highest-ranking members of his administration and mock them without the fear that they’ll be thrown in Guantanamo Bay for their trouble is the crux of this whole black-tie song-and-dance. It’s one of those signs of a healthy, functioning democracy, much like the ability to climb a flight of stairs without keeling over from breathlessness is a sign of a healthy, functioning set of lungs.
Maybe the goal with choosing Chernow is to avoid upsetting the Trump administration. But everything upsets the Trump administration, save for the things that actually should (children forcibly separated from their parents and kept in cages, well-done steak). And trying to stay in the good graces of the powerful is… not exactly supposed to be the priority of an adversarial press. White House correspondents don’t work for the White House.
An interesting counterpoint here is the Kennedy Center Honors. Like the WHCD, the KCH is a black tie event to which the president and first lady are annually invited. Traditionally, they attend; Donald and Melania Trump do not. Like with the WHCD, there is no version of a KCH that President Trump would actually enjoy, because the very thing that the KCH celebrates — artistic excellence, with all the challenging, status-quo-questioning, boundary-erasing it brings — is something Trump fundamentally refuses to value or acknowledge.
Were it very important to the Kennedy Center that Trump be enticed to attend, perhaps they could have arranged some lineup to his liking. They could have exhumed Elvis from his grave (or tracked him down, wherever he still lives). Instead, they went in the opposite direction. Among this year’s recipients are Cher, who has compared Trump to Hitler, and the creative team of Hamilton, a show that stands for everything Trump’s administration belittles, abuses, and attacks. Its creator is a man whose near-pathological kindness is legendary but still believes Trump is “going straight to hell.” It seems they knew a lost cause when they saw one.
By the way, Flint still doesn’t have clean water.