Only Donald Trump could manage to justify the continued existence of the White House Correspondents Association dinner, a springtime ritual of journalistic self-indulgence that might just as well have ended years ago. By declaring the dinner “DEAD”– after yet another humiliating comic takedown of him and his enablers – the president is testing his authoritarian impulse against American traditions of unfettered and even offensive speech.
For Trump to achieve such a victory over those who dare to mock him would inflict real and permanent damage on cultural freedom in this country.
With typical subtlety, his tweets revealed the enraged ego driving his demand to abolish the WHCA dinner. On Saturday night, as the event was ending, he jotted a telltale reference to a moment that left him stewing for seven years:
“The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a failure last year but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it. The filthy ‘comedian’ totally bombed (couldn’t even deliver her lines-much like the Seth Meyers weak performance). Put Dinner to rest, or start over!”
It was back in 2011 when Seth Meyers hosted the dinner, reciting a monologue that aimed several razor barbs at Trump, only moments after a smiling Barack Obama fired his own rips at the celebrity developer. Then in his “birther” phase, which was duly ridiculed by Obama, Trump sat stone-faced in the audience, and later whined that Meyers had been “too nasty.” He has boycotted the dinner ever since, and no doubt wants revenge.
Flash forward to that very same podium, where Michelle Wolf courageously called out Trump and the women who serve him. She certainly didn’t “bomb,” unless that means she delivered several tons of verbal ordnance that directly hit Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the president himself (as well as Congressional Democrats, Republican leaders, and various mainstream media outlets).
She opened with a warning rimshot: “Like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, ‘Let’s get this over with.’”
Not all of Wolf’s lines were meant to kill like that first quip. After a string of “how broke is he?” jokes about Trump’s dubious billions – he flies failed business class, he looked for foreign oil in Don Junior’s hair – she suddenly stepped out of character.
“How broke is he? He had to borrow money from the Russians, and now he’s compromised and susceptible to blackmail and possibly responsible for the collapse of the republic.” Over and over again, Wolf interrupted her own crackling performance to remind us that this brutish regime is no laughing matter.
Perhaps that insistence on discomfort, that refusal to normalize, is what provoked the negative response from both rightwing and mainstream journalists. It took shape as an upwelling of fake indignation over her alleged mistreatment of the White House press secretary. Within moments after the dinner ended, and ever since, a variety of critics criticized Wolf for supposedly sexist remarks about Sanders’ physical appearance.
To put it simply, Wolf said not one word that was critical of her looks. She joked about Sanders “burning facts” to create a “smokey” eyeshadow. She compared Sanders to Aunt Lydia, a villainous character in The Handmaid’s Tale who doesn’t resemble her physically but likewise stands for repression, deception, and misogyny. She called Sanders a liar, which is a fact, not a slur.
Evidently this was just too much truth to bear. So sympathetic to Sanders were the journalists who heard Wolf’s 90-second burn that they “swarmed” the press secretary during the after party. A New York Times correspondent publicly congratulated her for remaining in her seat for the entire ordeal. And MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, who endured a little roughing up by Wolf too, said she felt sorry for Sanders as a “wife and mother.”
Responding to the outburst of righteous guff, the WHCA issued a pitiful apology to its members. In that statement, the organization’s president scolded Wolf for failing to reflect “a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people…”
But do the leaders and members of the WHCA actually believe that the Trump White House shares its commitment to a vigorous and free press, civility, and great reporting? By this late date, the question answers itself. The media establishment’s craven abandonment of Wolf – who did exactly what she was hired to do – is a dire signal that Trump is winning his war on the press and the First Amendment.
With a witless thug in power, Washington badly needs this annual burlesque as an occasion of defiance – even if too many journalists lack the spirit to celebrate it. Yes, the WHCA dinner is a self-congratulatory spectacle that has outlasted its fading charm. But for freedom’s sake, the roast must go on.
IMAGE: Screenshot of Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner, listening to Seth Meyers and Barack Obama (and the audience) laughing at him.