Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about him and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.
The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.
Still, we must not forget the main spectacle of the evening; the president as comedian. Especially the two most recent presidents have proven themselves quite apt at the art of comedy; Cecily Strong called Obama the best comedian to ever inhabit the White House in an interview. When it comes to telling jokes in general another president stands above most; the “great communicator” Ronald Reagan. While the Correspondent’s Dinner is a century-long tradition the comedic element only emerged during the Reagan presidency. For previous presidential roasts one would have to turn to the Al Smith Memorial Dinner, which coincidentally lost much prominence due to political differences between the host and the Democratic Party around the same time the Correspondent’s Dinner emerged as the comedic event of Washington. At the Al Smith Memorial Dinner in 1960, John F. Kennedy put his wit and charm to use in explaining that he would not consider campaign contributions in appointing ambassadors, “ever since I made that statement I have not received one single cent from my father”. It is easy to see why Gerald Gardner concluded that ”humor is a form of voter seduction that is more insidious than dirty tricks” (All the Presidents’ Wits: The Power of Presidential Humor. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986).