There used to be a fun, entertaining social fixture on the Washington D.C. annual event calendar called “The White House Correspondent’s Dinner.” A night to get duded up, shove some job resume’s in your breast pocket, enjoy some good food and a show at the Shoreham Hotel, have a toddy or two and mingle with the Who’s Who of the national media business. Alas, no more.
The fun, the entertainment, the food and drink, the job hunting and a few hours rubbing shoulders with network news big shots effectively died when some idiot - maybe more than one - turned it into a televised prime time “special.” “Special” it ain’t.
Really enjoyable professional media comradery left the room the first time that happened. “Celebrities” became the focus. Some on the way up - many on the way down - and some you never heard of. Too many of ‘em with no firsthand knowledge of the edgy relationship between politicians and media. So a lot of comedic material with a good bite to it went right over their coiffed heads.
Media and politicos used to make up the audience. You’d put on a tux - mine were always rented and looked like it. You were allowed - but not especially encouraged - to bring a guest. Entertainment was always first class. For the two I attended, headliners were Pearl Bailey and George Carlin.
But, for many reporters in the large crowd, the most interesting hours came after the formal event ended. That’s when many of us in the ranks toured the suites sponsored by CBS, NBC, ABC, and many large, regional broadcasters. The hors d’oeuvres were good and the booze free. You could spend a few minutes chatting with Mike Wallace or Harry Reasoner, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or others from the “nets.” You might even get a resume’ in the hands of just the right producer or corporate news VP.
It’s been many years since my “tour of the suites” and I’d guess not a lot of that goes on now. What was a damned good evening is now a TV “reality” show meat market for those who like reality unreal.
The spotlighted guest at the head table for many, many years has been the President of the United States. Only one in the last 70 or so years that didn’t show up was Reagan . His limp excuse - somebody tried to kill him. But, even then, he called in from his hospital bed to crack a few one-liners and receive a lot of warm applause. A pro. Never had done a standing ovation for a phone call till that time.
Even Nixon – a guy who hated the press and who generally reaped the same feeling from most of us media folk - even Nixon showed up. He took a lot of shots. And he gave a lot. Most in the audience had little regard for the man. But they had to give him a lot of credit for just being there. Especially toward the end of his White House days. It couldn’t have been fun. Or easy.
Trump says he won’t go this year. Which is fine. And not unexpected. He’s been in the audience for a couple previously. Took some public jabs and hated it. You could see it on his face. The ego he carries is huge and tender as a baby’s butt. If he can’t have top billing and the final word, he won’t play. Again, that’s fine.
The Association is talking about inviting Barack Obama. I hope they don’t. He made several dinners while in office. Good writing, a natural sense of humor and excellent timing made his moments very entertaining. Something Trump could never do. They’re also talking of cancelling the evening. Again, hope they don’t.
No, what I’d like to see is an empty chair right next to the podium where Trump would normally sit if he had the guts. Might even put a spotlight on it. Just the empty chair. That would say more than any comedian. Just a hot light. And that empty chair.
The Association raises a lot of bucks with this annual event. After expenses, most of the money goes for scholarships at journalism schools. Good program. Helps a lot of deserving kids.
No, “the show must go on” as Irving Berlin said. With or without a POTUS. If the nation can struggle through without one, so can the Correspondent’s Association.