What is the White House correspondents’ dinner and who is hosting this year?

The annual black tie event is back for the first time in three years, amid accusations that it shows the cosy relationship between politicians and reporters

Bevan Hurley
Sunday 01 May 2022 01:26
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Remembering when Obama destroyed Trump at the 2011 White House correspondents dinner

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner returns on Saturday for the first time in three years, with Daily Show anchor Trevor Noah as host.

The annual black tie dinner attended by Washington DC powerbrokers was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic forced large gatherings to be put on hold.

President Joe Biden is among the 2,000 guests expected to attend, though will skip the meal, and wear a mask when he’s not speaking. It will be the first time a sitting president has attended since Barack Obama in 2016.

Trevor Noah is hosting the 2022 WHCD, the first comedian to do so since Michelle Wolf

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr Biden’s decision to attend the indoor event in the US capital, as coronavirus cases are rising, is “a decision he made on a personal basis”.

Dr Anthony Fauci has said he is skipping the dinner altogether over concerns that Covid numbers are reaching dangerous levels once again.

President George Bush conducts the US Marine Corps Band at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in 2008.

The early years of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

The event is organised by the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), which was formed in 1914 and is made up of journalists who are credentialed to cover the administration and get access to the White House briefing room and president.

The first dinner was held in 1920, and in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge became the first sitting leader to attend.

In 1944, when Franklin D Roosevelt was in the White House, the dinner featured a performance from Bob Hope.

Legendary late night host Ed O’Sullivan hosted the event in 1946, while early incarnations featured entertainment from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Peter Sellars.

The sitting president would routinely put in an appearance and was usually asked to speak, often taking the opportunity to poke fun at themselves.

It was open to women for the first time during John F Kennedy’s presidency in 1962.

The dinner was cancelled sporadically due to political crises, such as Watergate in the early 1970s.

The event evolved in the 1980s to feature a presidential roast from comedians. That decade, Richard Pryor and Jay Leno took turns to make fun of the commander in chief. Mr Leno went on to host the event four times, which is still a record.

The current WHCA president is Steven Portnoy of CBS News.

Stephen Colbert skewering George W Bush in 2006

Controversies and claims of coziness

In the 1990s, hosts included Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien and Al Franken, as the presidential roast formula became the norm.

Presidents typically told a set of jokes along with the entertainment for the evening. 

George W Bush seemed to revel in making fun of himself and other members of his administration during his two-terms. In 2008, Mr Bush turned on the Dubya charm as took a turn conducting the US Marines Corps Band.

Some were not amused. The dinner was held up as evidence of the cozy relationship between reporters and the politicians they were supposed to cover, particurly after the Iraq War.

At the 2006 dinner, host Stephen Colbert mocked the press corp as little more than stenographers. The jokes reportedly “fell flat” among the gathered journalists , but the roast went viral online.

Writing in the New York Times the next year, former columnist-turned TV producer Frank Rich wrote: “Though most of the Washington audience failed to find the joke funny, Americans elsewhere, having paid a heavy price for the press’s failure to challenge White House propaganda about Iraq, laughed until it hurt.”

Arguably the most infamous correspondents’ dinner came in 2011, when host Seth Meyers and President Barack Obama told a particularly scathing series of jokes about one of the guests, the then-Celebrity Apprentice host Donald Trump.

They ridiculed Mr Trump for his “fox”-like mane of hair, and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

In one caustic roast, Mr Meyers said: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

Mr Obama joined in the “fun”, going after Mr Trump for pushing the racist birther conspiracy, that claimed he was not born in the United States.

“No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Mr Obama said.

“And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like, ‘did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?’”

Clearly unable to see the funny side, Mr Trump was unable to stop fiercely glaring at the stage.

The incident reportedly punctured Mr Trump’s pride so badly that he resolved to prove them wrong and run for the presidency.

Michelle Wolf hosted in 2018, and did not hold back while attacking the president and his press secretary

“I wasn’t aware how it was playing with Donald Trump,” Meyers told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016.

“I didn’t know where he was sitting, and I was just focusing on playing to the room.”

Mr Trump declined to attend the event when he was in office.

In 2018, host Michelle Wolf skewered politicians, journalists and media outlets alike.

Everyone from MSNBC hosts to rightwing commenters came in for criticism.

But her comments about White House press secretary Sarah Huckerbee Sanders, who attended, attracted the most attention.

President Barack Obama at the 2013 White House Correspondents' Dinner

During an extended riff, Ms Wolf said: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. 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.”

Several attendees walked out in protest, and political news website The Hill said they would never again attend the event.

The next year, presidential historian Ron Chernow took over hosting duties as the WHCA sought to restore some tradition to the event.

While the focus of the annual soiree has focused on the glitz and high-profile guests, the dinner also raises money for student scholarships.

The 2022 White House Correspondents’ Dinner will be held on 30 April at the Washington Hilton, with plenty of guests from both Washington and Hollywood’s elite expected to attend.

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