The annual dinner hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association is often referred to as a “nerd prom,” but it is really a way for the Washington complex of journalists and power brokers to coat themselves with gaudiness and glamour by mingling for a night with Hollywood celebrities.
That coziness has sometimes been criticized, but this year’s dinner, set for April 29, may be even more controversial if the Trump administration continues to throw grenades – false facts, threats, insults – in the news media’s direction. Samantha Bee’s decision to counterprogram on that night will not make it any easier. (The New York Times does not attend the event.)
How did this bizarre event – mixing the likes last year of Joe Biden, Aretha Franklin and Damian Lewis – ever come to be? The answer is that it seems, like the universe, to be ever expanding. Here is a history.
No Presidents Here
On May 7, 1921, 50 men congregated at the Arlington Hotel in Washington for the first White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Not in attendance: the new president, Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher. But some of his top aides were, including the guest of honor that night, George B. Christian, Harding’s secretary and close friend.
In 1924, the dinner had landed its first sitting president, Calvin Coolidge. Every president has since appeared at least once.
Helen Thomas, the pioneering reporter, had forced more than a few doors open on her way to covering the Kennedy White House. But in 1962, the correspondents’ dinner was closed to women. She pressured President John F. Kennedy, who then threatened to boycott the dinner. She got an invite.
The ban was lifted.
Onstage: Songs and Jokes
Over the decades, the guest list grew. In 1944, Bob Hope became one of the first performers, telling jokes at the Statler Hotel. Afterward, Richard Wilson, a syndicated columnist, wrote that Hope would be “another Will Rogers.”
In 1953, Hope said that he had met President Dwight D. Eisenhower a decade earlier – “when he was a four-star general and had some power.” (Eisenhower clapped.) Other performers over the years have included Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante.
Celebrities Take Over
In 1987, the party that Washington has come to know began to take shape. A writer for The Baltimore Sun, Michael Kelly, invited Fawn Hall, the secretary for Oliver North, the former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, to the dinner. Hall, considered glamorous, and North were integral figures in the Iran-Contra affair.
This helped spur the tradition of news organizations’ inviting celebrities to the dinner as “dates,” for lack of a better term. And the appeal for A-listers only increased when Vanity Fair, in the early ’90s, started hosting an annual after-party geared toward celebrities. In 1993, C-Span began televising the dinners.
Streisand’s Repeat Appearances
Barbra Streisand is the rare star to have witnessed the evolution of the dinner over 50 years. In 1963, she performed at the dinner for Kennedy. She returned 30 years later in 1993 and was spotted discussing gays in the military with Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to The Washington Post, at a time when Hollywood stars were not the norm. In 2013, Streisand attended the gala alongside Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York. By then, top-flight celebrities, including Sofia Vergara and Steven Spielberg, filled the audience.
Is This Thing On?
Starting in the ’80s, most headliners were comedians. Al Franken – a former writer and cast member for “Saturday Night Live” and today a Democratic U.S. senator for Minnesota – performed in 1994 and 1996. He is the only keynote speaker to eventually have been elected to Congress. Ray Romano, Jon Stewart, Seth Meyers and Joel McHale have all led the festivities.
And sometimes the comedians have caused controversy. In 2006, Stephen Colbert, who was hosting the satirical “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central, offered biting criticism of President George W. Bush in his keynote speech. Colbert did his mock-conservative shtick from “The Colbert Report” and teased Bush, saying, “Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol.” Sitting mere feet away, the president did not seem amused. Colbert also ribbed the news media: “Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”
At last year’s dinner, Larry Wilmore, an African American comedian, invoked a racial epithet to refer to President Barack Obama – part of a heartfelt thank-you to the first black president.
Spurring a Trump Presidency?
In 2011, Donald Trump was the focus of cutting jokes by Obama and the host for the evening, Meyers. Trump was publicly teasing a run for president and Obama mocked his qualifications, his public questioning of Obama’s birth certificate and his TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Meyers delivered a set just as piercing. Trump barely smiled, and at least outwardly, did not seem to appreciate being the butt of the jokes, although he told The New York Times last year, “I loved that dinner.”
There have been suggestions that the dinner may have spurred Trump to put together a serious campaign for president in 2016. Trump has denied this.