WASHINGTON ― The reporters in the White House press room today looked a little less worn out than they usually do the Monday after a Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Maybe it was because they hadn’t exhausted themselves acting like celebrities and rubbing elbows with Hollywood types, star athletes and YouTube personalities ― the sorts of people who usually populate these things.
I speak from personal experience. Years ago ― decades, actually ― my first guest at my first dinner was the No. 2 staff member of the Senate Budget Committee. It was considered quite a “get,” because I might actually (eventually) get news.
By the time I was done jumping whole schools of sharks, my list of guests included Michael Douglas, Meg Ryan and Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks ― all wonderful people, gracious in the extreme and very earnest about politics. But really…
My lowest moment came when I spotted Katy Perry in a Hilton hotel hallway. I shouted like a surprised fanboy. You can look it up.
Well, this year was different ― blessedly so.
With no president on hand (Donald Trump had made it clear he would be elsewhere) and no members of the Cabinet either, and with the entertainment industry loathing all things Trump, the weekend was thankfully bereft of glamour, focusing instead on the simple, humble pleasures of good journalism and drinking.
Fittingly, Monday-morning assessments of the weekend gave top marks to the prosaic dinner itself ― and Hasan Minhaj, its earnest comedian host ― rather than to the elaborately staged, tough-ticket glitz of TBS’ “Full Frontal” comedy show.
At the latter even, host Samantha Bee was her brilliantly sarcastic self, transforming the modest DAR Constitution Hall into a glittery nightclub and offering Will Ferrell, Steve Buscemi, Allison Janney, George Takei and an all-female band fronted by the raunch-rocker Peaches.
The WHCA dinner itself, in a hotel ballroom with noticeably more space between the tables this year, featured speeches by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Minhaj, a 31-year-old “Daily Show” comic, was as caustically funny about Trump and the failings of the press as Bee, but he allowed himself to play the straight man at the end.
“This event,” he said, “is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy.”
“From college campuses to the White House, only in America can a first-generation, Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president ― the orange man behind the Muslim ban,” he went on. “It’s a sign to the rest of the world. It’s this amazing tradition that shows the rest of the world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.”
Attendees at the Correspondents’ Association dinner were given “First Amendment” lapel pins. At the after-parties, everyone from network presidents to reporters on the beat could be seen sporting this accessory.
Outside the dinner, before and after, a smattering of demonstrators carried hand-lettered signs reading “THE PRESS IS NOT THE ENEMY” and “KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.” In all my years of attending the dinner, I had never seen anything like it.
In the White House press room Monday, the reporters I talked to expressed genuine relief about the weekend. “It was a needed corrective,” said one, as though talking about a detox regime.
Of course, freedom is not a lapel pin, and neither is good journalism. And it seems safe to predict that this kind of sober, reflective atmosphere won’t prevail forever.
Social media all but demands that journalists try to make quasi-celebrities of themselves, and on the day Trump leaves Washington, Hollywood will be ready to step right back in. And there is no un-mixing the soufflé of politics and fame for fame’s sake. It is a risk of democracy, and of free speech.
There was historical irony in Woodward and Bernstein’s appearance.
Through no fault or intention of their own, their work in the 1970s helped jump-start the first real conflation of celebrity and Beltway journalism. Less than two years after Richard Nixon resigned, Hollywood turned the pair of Washington Post reporters into iconic silver-screen figures portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
As for me, I’m still working the edges of show biz on the side, serving as an off-air “political adviser” ― whatever that is ― to a new Comedy Central series called “The President Show.”
I’m hoping that the star, improv comic Anthony Atamanuik, brings himself and/or his whole show down here for the dinner next year.
Celebrity would be back ― and I wouldn’t mind a bit.