Voices: Behind the jokes, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner reveals a nervous Washington

·4-min read
Biden Correspondents Dinner (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Biden Correspondents Dinner (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Washington is still largely hungover after a week of galas, parties and afterparties that come with the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. If there is one thing that journalists, especially in DC, love more than our work, it’s reminding people just how much we love our work and how much esteem in which we hold ourselves as protectors of the First Amendment of the Constitution. That helps us feel a little less guilty about enjoying the sumptuous spreads and open bars at various parties that we partake in throughout the weekend in our evening gowns or tuxedos.

Last year’s correspondnts’ dinner was the first since the Covid-19 pandemic, which itself came after former president Donald Trump chose not to attend the three dinners that took place during his tenure at the White House.

The latest dinner was packed, as the ballroom in the Washington Hilton was full of reporters in their best outfits as they tried to look cool while getting selfies with John Legend and Chrissy Teigen. Politics is show business for ugly people, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala once quipped, after all.

But behind the luxurious brunches, fancy hors d'oeuvres and having to sit through President Joe Biden reciting jokes alongside Roy Wood Jr, there was an air of nervousness throughout the evening. One of the key conceits of Washington is that for all of the aggressive rhetoric, the press, elected officials and everyone in between are supposed to be friendly once we’re off the clock.

And indeed, some elected officials, like Democratic Representative Robert Garcia and GOP Rep Dan Crenshaw, were at the dinner, as was Democratic Senator John Fetterman, who traded his signature hoodie and shorts for a tuxedo. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Susan Collins’s communications directors were seen hanging out.

In its best permutation, this agreement allows for all of us to see each other as human beings and therefore make negotiation easier between both parties and for reporters to build good relationships with sources. At its worst, it can make viewers at home think that all of the partisan bickering and media grandstanding is, to borrow a phrase from pro-wrestling, kayfabe; the citizenry often thinks we are all playing a role and that we all just serve each other in the end.

But this time around, anxiety definitely filled the air during both the pre-parties and afterparties. The Wall Street Journal‘s pre-party featured in bold letters a call to free its reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being held in Russia on trumped-up charges of espionage. Mr Biden acknowledged his imprisonment before he launched into his jokes.

Similarly, the dinner highlighted Sabrina Siddiqui, another WSJ journalist and the sole print reporter who joined Mr Biden on his trek to Ukraine back in February.

At the same time, the dinner came at a time of massive upheaval for two of the major cable news networks, as Fox News booted Tucker Carlson, its biggest solo host, after the a settlement with Dominion voting systems. CNN, meanwhile, parted ways with longtime anchor Don Lemon.

Mr Biden easily made mincemeat out of them, mentioning how some would call him “old” or “ancient” while Mr Lemon would say “that’s a man in his prime,” after the ousted CNN host said former South Carolina governor and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not in her prime because of her age. But underneath the wisecracks, plenty of Democrats and figures in the press raised questions about Mr Biden’s advanced age as he announced his campaign for re-election last week, while Republicans have hoped to highlight his senior citizen status.

Similarly, the dinner was marked by who wasn’t there as much as it was by who was in attendance. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer snapped a photo with Julia Fox, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy chose instead to head to Israel.

That meant the two principal leaders in Congress could not discuss the debt limit over a glass of scotch after Mr McCarthy passed a debt limit bill last week. Meanwhile, Mr Biden has stood firm on his point that the bill Mr McCarthy passed largely to abate the most right-wing members of his base is a non-starter.

Of course, Mr Trump looms in the background of all of the festivities, as he has seeped into facet of politics over the last eight years. Former administration officials like Mike Pompeo and Kellyanne Conway attended in his stead. But soon, us reporters will head out to campaign trail in earnest as he kicks off the next act of the Trump spectacle.

We may need more free cocktails. Did I mention I’m sober?