By Paul Farhi | The Washington Post
WASHINGTON – Fancy gowns: check. Tuxedos: check. Surf and turf on the menu: Also check.
All the usual elements were there at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday night, but much of the glamour and some of the fun was missing.
There was no president in attendance for the gala event, virtually no celebrities and no comedian for the first time in decades. Sensitive to President Donald Trump’s reaction to being made fun of last year, the WHCA decided not to tempt the presidential temper again. The organization dropped the after-dinner comedy, a staple stretching back to the Bob Hope era.
Instead, the 3,000 or so attendees in the subterranean Washington Hilton ballroom will receive . . . a lecture from a historian.
As if that won’t be entertainment enough, Trump sniped from the sidelines. As he has each year since his inauguration, he counterprogrammed the dinner by staging a reelection rally, this one in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Fake news. They are fakers!” he taunted, pointing at the press assembled in the Resch Center arena, amid chants of “CNN sucks.”
In all, the once-glitzy dinner, a staple of spring in Washington, looked more like a fancy journalism-industry dinner (albeit one televised live by three cable TV networks), rather than the self-indulgent, Hollywood-on-the-Potomac glamfest of yore.
Not that there was anything wrong with that, for some. “I’ve been here a couple times and it’s certainly not as exciting when you have the president here,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, R, one of a handful of political types in attendance along with the journalists. “It’s unfortunate that so many people, the president and people in his administration are not here, but it’s still a great opportunity for so many people in the media and others to get together.”
Although he was MIA for the third time as president – the first among the last 15 presidents never to have attended the event while in office – Trump was a lingering presence nevertheless. Despite sneering at the dinner as “boring and so negative” beforehand, he has managed to transform it in just a few years, both through passive and active measures.
Trump’s election drove away almost all of the movie, TV, sports and business celebrities who had once clamored to attend as the guests of news-media organizations. This year, the big names were . . . there weren’t really any. One boldfaced name, Jay Leno, went to a pre-dinner event Saturday morning, but did not bother to attend the main event.
Trump also saw to it that none of his aides and advisers would enjoy the festivities, either. In another apparent paroxysm of peeve at those he calls “the enemy of the people,” the president decreed on Tuesday that no one from his administration would be allowed to attend, marking perhaps the first time in history that a president has ordered federal employees not to go to a party.
The decree meant that senior Trump administration officials such as Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sarah Sanders – both of whom attended last year – were nowhere to be found this time around. Sanders attended the Wisconsin rally instead, where the president brought her up onstage. “Last year this night I was at a slightly different event” that was “not quite the best welcome,” she said to the crowd. “So this is an amazing honor.”
A few ex-Trumpites, including the president’s former lawyer Ty Cobb, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, didn’t get the memo and showed up.
Trump also effectively dictated the evening’s entertainment, too.
The White House Correspondents’ Association decided to break with another tradition – the after-dinner comic – after Trump raged about last year’s choice, Michelle Wolf. Comedians have skewered the president, the press and other powerful people in the room since at least 1944 (when Bob Hope’s big zinger was, “The Republicans want to carry the South in the next election. They are going to run Rhett Butler as vice president”). But comedy is apparently too dangerous for an organization dedicated to free expression and the First Amendment.
The result is a Saturday night wonk-out with Ron Chernow, author of voluminous and much-praised biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant (Chernow’s presentation started too late for this edition).
The annual black-tie gala is officially a celebration of the First Amendment and a fundraiser for scholarships for young journalists. It also features the presentation of awards to White House reporters.