PAWLEY’S ISLAND, S.C. -- When I moved to Washington several years ago, a D.C. veteran whispered a warning that she had learned from her father: New York is tough, but Washington is mean.
Truer words, my friend, truer words.
Yet, apparently, even Washington can be offended by too much meanness. By now you’ve heard about the disastrous White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last Saturday, where comedian Michelle Wolf tortured her audience with lousy jokes in a tin-tongued voice that made one yearn for the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. (Not to be mean or anything, but it’s permissible to critique a public performer’s voice just as one would a musician’s violin.)
What offended many who’ve spoken up the past few days was Wolf’s mean-spiritedness. Oh, for goodness sake, girls, what were you expecting? As Wolf herself told the audience, “You should have done more research.”
But Wolf’s sin wasn’t being mean; it was being not funny.
Specifically, the girls’ club was upset that Wolf referred to Sanders’ makeup, which, they said, was crossing a line. What line? The eyeliner line? The only line she crossed is the one between good comedy and bad. But you be the judge. Herewith, the “joke” in question:
“I actually really like Sarah,” Wolf said. “I think she’s very resourceful. But she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
I’m sorry, what? Did she misread her notes? “Smoky eye” presumably refers to Sanders’ eye shadow, but the comment doesn’t even make sense. What is lies? Where is funny?
Wolf went on as all eyes shifted to Sanders, who, in addition to looking stunning in a royal blue dress and upswept hair, was a portrait of calm and dignity. (Yes! You can comment on a woman’s appearance when she has spent hours and a few paychecks to look as gorgeous as possible for a social occasion. We women don’t do that hoping to be ignored.)
Conway, too, was a portrait of serenity and class when Wolf turned her attention to the presidential adviser. Resplendent in white, Conway was Queen of the Elves as Wolf told the audience she hoped a tree would fall on Conway -- not to harm her, she quickly corrected the implication, but just to get her “stuck.”
Whoa, now, there’s a knee-slapper. Again, did she misread the joke?
Some years are fun, some not so much. Chalk up the most recent to the latter category. When the late author Christopher Hitchens once (erroneously) wrote that women aren’t funny, he must have had Wolf in mind. Maybe she can be funny; she just wasn’t. She was tedious and boring.
No, I wasn’t there. Nor did I watch it on television. When a full moon is rising pinkly over the Atlantic, it’s possible to forget why one would ever subject herself to the annual contest of relevance. But having read about it and watched the clips, I’m more convinced than ever that the dinner has jumped itself. (Forget the shark -- he’s doing stand-up in a comedy club at Myrtle Beach.)
The correspondents’ dinner comedy act, which is customarily followed by the president, is supposed to be a roast of the current administration, not a human sacrifice. Rather than earn laughter with her keen wit and clever take, Wolf managed to make Sanders and Conway, the Trump administration’s top purveyors of “alternative facts,” into the most likable people in the room.
Meanwhile, Trump was in Washington, Michigan, basking in the cheers of his supporters rather than submitting to the jeers of his harshest critics.
The fact is, the correspondents’ dinner, which is supposed to be about recognizing journalists for achievement and rewarding worthy students with scholarships, has become too much of something else. We all like to dress up and put our roles to rest for a few hours and be entertained. But at a time when the Fourth Estate suffers a deficit of public trust and respect, we would do well to demonstrate the behavior we insist upon from others.
Washington insiders say that the only thing worse than going to the correspondents’ dinner is not going. I’m not so sure about that.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.