Today, the White House Correspondents’ Association announced that historian Ron Chernow will be the featured speaker at its annual dinner, which takes place April 27, 2019. “As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history,” Olivier Knox, president of the WHCA, said in a statement. Chernow has written many long history books beloved by dads and uncles everywhere, but he’s most recently famous for his biography of Alexander Hamilton, which spawned the irredeemably popular Broadway musical.
Chernow will be the first non-comedian to headline the dinner since 2003, when Ray Charles sang for the crowd. The decision presumably follow last year’s brouhaha over the acerbic stylings of Michelle Wolf, who was chided by the broader establishment for clowning on Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ looks amidst what was a fairly severe set about how bad everything is. (I know, you’ve heard a thousand of them, but this one was decently entertaining: “Mike Pence is a weirdo though, he’s a weird little guy” is a killer line.) Trump was notably not in attendance, having seen no need to sit through a set about why he’s the worst.
Generally, though, the comedians are fairly nice to the president, who’s usually happy to play nice with the journalists in attendance. There are roasts and burns, but they’re all gently delivered, as so not to offend anyone. Before Wolf, you’d have to go back to Stephen Colbert’s withering speech at the 2006 dinner to find the last time anyone really tried to poke holes in the Washingtonian artifice. Why should the president and the journalists tasked with holding him accountable act all buddy-buddy? Haven’t any of these clowns seen any of the many, many works of fiction about why journalists shouldn’t befriend their sources? (The Post, which sucked, at least advocated the novel idea that a newspaper’s publisher should not have the Secretary of Defense over for drinks.)
Much in the way that mainstream late night comedy plays nice — the ritual’s ethos might be Jimmy Fallon ruffling Trump’s hair — the featured comedians are mostly good for producing next-day traffic for websites aggregating the best bits, and calming the fears of any political officials scared that the press might be getting too antagonistic. And it’s not like even the most severe jokes have produced any spiritual effect in its targets, because the whole charade still functions today. Maybe someone like Hannibal Buress would have the courage to look at the crowd and say, “Hey, no jokes aside, but this sucks shit and you should all be embarrassed for yourselves,” the only thing worth saying.
The decision is already being taken as another institution bending its will to Trump, and probably so, but: This has always been an empty ceremony emblematic of Washington’s worst dynamics. While it’s fun to imagine Sanders scowling through another set of disses, the White House is all too happy to weaponize such attacks as another tool of the intolerant left — abetted, of course, by the same mainstream media tasked with not falling for its bullshit. Let’s not bring it back when Trump is out of office, please. Any comedian jockeying for the spot can take their proposed set to Twitter, where it would be just as effective.