The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner took place Saturday in the nation’s capital. While a comedic address traditionally takes center stage for the night, this year, the keynote was given instead by Ron Chernow — the historian who wrote the book on which the musical “Hamilton” is based.
Chernow largely traded wit for facts at the dinner, and made an invaluable contribution: perspective. He recounted the history of journalists in the White House, while also touching on misinformation and the lack of trust people have in the media.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump skipped the WHCA dinner to lead another one of his demagogic, fear-mongering rallies halfway across the country in Wisconsin.
Chernow did not prioritize laughs, and he should not have. Trump’s consistent denunciation of the press is not a joking matter. In a time when the president continues to encourage people to attack the media, and even inspires them to do so, a break from tradition is warranted.
Chernow worked in a few quips, such as when he said, “I applaud any president who aspires to the Nobel Prize for peace, but we don’t want one in the running for the Nobel Prize for fiction.” Yet he also gave a call to action to the government and its citizens.
“Campaigns against the press don’t get your face carved into Mount Rushmore, for when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy,” Chernow said. “… We must recall that civility has been an essential lubricant in our democratic culture, and that even our best presidents have handled the press with wit, grace, charm, candor and even humor.”
The WHCA dinner has always served as a unifying night where press, politicians and the American people come together to make fun of the president. People on both sides of the aisle laugh along, or at least, pretend to. Yet Trump has never attended the annual dinner and is the first of the last 15 presidents not to do so while in office.
Of course, this is far from a surprise. Trump is quick to dish out insults to people he doesn’t like, but he’s far too sensitive to take any heat himself. Skipping the WHCA dinner for a campaign rally is more than just political theater — it speaks volumes to the president’s insecurity.
In some ways, it’s worth asking what the value of this dinner even is anymore.
At its core, the event celebrates the importance of free speech and the sanctity of the First Amendment. The fact that citizens of this country have a stage to openly and publicly insult their leader is, in the context of world history, pretty rare. But Trump has decided that his ego is more important than this American tradition that, really, we ought to be proud of.
Chernow’s predecessor last year was comedian Michelle Wolf, whose address faced criticism for hard-hitting and arguably cruel jokes about female members of Trump’s administration.
Wolf called White House press secretary Sarah Sanders “an Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.” She also said Ivanka Trump was “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.”
Olivier Knox, the president of the WCHA, said he received many emails following the 2018 dinner with suggestions for how to improve it.
“No entertainer. No comic,” Knox said in an interview with The New York Times. “A serious speaker. Maybe a musician. Maybe don’t televise it.”
Knox and the WHCA read the room and chose to embrace the facts of history as Trump traveled far away from Washington to do what he does best — stand in the middle of a crowd and enrage, mislead and misinform.
Chernow also offered an important reminder Saturday: the press is a powerful weapon. The Fourth Estate has been at odds with the White House before, yet through tumultuous and harmonious times, it has played a crucial role in the nation’s democracy.
“Donald J. Trump is not the first and won’t be the last American president to create jitters about the First Amendment,” Chernow said in his speech, “so be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by the very things you’re fighting against.”