President Obama poked fun at himself and his Republican foes at the weekend, generating early laughs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with the line: “I’m not the strapping young Muslim Socialist I used to be.”
The annual dinner brings together the Washington press corps, reigning politicians and a number of Hollywood celebrities for a night of networking and humour during which the Commander-in-Chief takes a brief turn as Comedian-in-Chief. It’s a tradition going back nearly a century. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan phoned in his remarks from Camp David, having survived an assassination attempt just weeks earlier. More recently, in 2000, Bill Clinton marked his final turn at the dinner with the line: “A year from now, I’ll have to watch someone else give this speech. And I will feel an onset of that rare affliction, unique to former presidents. AGDD: Attention-Getting Deficit Disorder.”
This year, fresh from the dedication of the George W Bush presidential library in Dallas, Mr Obama used his speech to turn to plans for his own legacy, saying: “Some have suggested that we put [my library] in my birthplace, but I’d rather keep it in the United States.”
Along with references to the so-called “birther” movement of right-wingers who question whether the President was born in the US, Mr Obama also looked back on his own mis-steps, including his controversial comments about Kamala Harris, the Attorney-General of California. “I happen to mention that Kamala Harris is the best-looking Attorney-General in the country. As you might imagine, I got trouble when I got back home,” he said. “Who knew Eric Holder [the US Attorney-General] was so sensitive?”
Outside the venue there were protesters dressed as devils, and inside some of the jokes also failed to raise a laugh. It’s a particular challenge for the headline act – this year, the honour went to the talk show host Conan O’Brien – whose job it is to roast the most powerful politician in the world. Back in 2006, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert was thought to have made President Bush uncomfortable with barbs about his administration’s low poll numbers. Referring to staff changes that some had likened to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, Mr Colbert said: “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” Mr O’Brien didn’t spark any such controversy this year, although many thought the President’s speech was funnier.
Critics did, however, complain about the growing size of the Hollywood contingent at an event that originally was meant to give the city’s powerful a chance to spend an informal evening with those who are employed to report on their affairs. The veteran TV news presenter Tom Brokaw said he would not attend this year’s event because of way the dinner had changed, saying the breaking point for him was the attendance last year of Lindsay Lohan, the troubled actress. This Saturday, in addition to Congressional leaders and senior White House officials inside the Hilton ballroom, Hollywood was represented by Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone and Steven Spielberg, among others.
Indeed Spielberg was the President’s sidekick for one of the most well-received jokes of the night, a skit in which Barack Obama played Daniel Day-Lewis playing ... Barack Obama.
The pre-recorded segment featured Spielberg describing how, like his last film Lincoln, his latest project would be an eponymous biopic of another President: Obama. Referring to Day Lewis’s skills as a method actor Mr Obama was shown fiddling with his “prosthetic” ears (“I don’t know how he walks around with these things”) and attempting to mimic his own famous body language. And the segment had another joke with a sting in the tail, when Spielberg revealed how he had come to the idea. “The guy’s already a lame duck,” he said, “so why wait?”
White House wit: Presidential jokes
“This is also the night of the Kremlin Correspondents Dinner in Moscow. That’s when the members of the Soviet media gather to laugh at Gorbachev’s jokes – or else.”
Ronald Reagan, 1986
“You know, the clock is running down on the Republicans in Congress, too...They’ve only got seven more months to investigate me.”
Bill Clinton, 2000
“Our entertainment tonight is Craig Ferguson. You know, this is a small world. Craig was once in a punk band called Bastards from Hell, which is what Dick [Cheney] and I are going to call our band.”
George W Bush, 2008
“This whole controversy about Jay-Z going to Cuba – it’s unbelievable. I’ve got 99 problems and now Jay-Z is one."
President Obama on Saturday