What People Might Remember from Nerd Prom 2022
The two moments that should go onto the ‘permanent record.’ One by a politician, one from a comedian.
As noted ad infinitum over the decades, I think the White House Correspondents’ Association bacchanal-dinner is a bad idea:
Its real reason for existence is as a commercial deal-sweetener, which allows media companies to invite advertisers to Washington’s version of a ‘glamorous’ experience. “I was in the room with the president, and let me tell you…”
Its allied reason for existence is the excitement of DC reporters and editors at getting to mix with star-level people from outside their realm—which is to say, actual stars. I understand this draw! As noted before (and explained here), one time at the WHCA I was assigned to spend a whole dinner seated next to a Supermodel. Another time, I got to talk for a few minutes with the Williams sisters. “I was in the room with them, and let me tell you …”
Its celebration by the DC press displays an “Emperor’s new clothes” level of self-unawareness. Does anyone think that televised coverage of this event will build confidence in the press’s role as a scrappy representative of the public? Everyone in the room is in a tuxedo or gown; “reporters” and government “subjects” sit shoulder to shoulder at the dinner tables, raising glasses of wine and laughing at one another’s jokes; a general mood of “we’re all in the club” prevails. As a reporter I hope that its viewership remains at a C-Span minimum. The more people who see it, the worse for the press. No one who sees this show will have a higher opinion of journalism, or a more accurate idea of what reporters actually do.
But let’s look on the bright side. Here is what’s worth remembering from last night’s event.
What Joe Biden said.
An incumbent president’s job, when lumbering onto the stage at the WHCA dinner, is to be “amusing” and “personable.” In specific this means patter following this outline:
A little self-deprecation;
Some topical zingers;
The “but seriously now” big finish.
I know this formula first-hand.
I thought Biden and his team touched all these required bases economically and well. You can see the official transcript of his remarks here, and the video via C-Span here. Thematic summary, with quotes from the official transcript:
Self-deprecation. The inevitable beginning of the remarks. Some of Biden’s forays in this realm:
Labored: “As already referenced, the very first President to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. I had just been elected to the United States Senate. (Laughter.)”
”Everyone at the White House is so excited. I told my grandkids and Pete Buttigieg they could stay up late and watch this show tonight. (Laughter and applause.)” Hardee-har!
Barbed: “I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have. (Laughter.)”
Actually a great line: “This is the first time a President attended this dinner in six years. (Applause.) It’s understandable. We had a horrible plague — followed by two years of COVID. (Laughter and applause.)”
This was a brave line, whose effect depended on timing—and Biden landed it.
Topical zingers. I won’t detail them all. Let’s just stick to this:
”If you’re at home watching this and you’re wondering how to [get vaccinated], just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here, vaccinated and boosted — all of them. (Laughter and applause.)
”And, look, Fox News, I’m really sorry your preferred candidate lost the last election. To make it up to you, I’m happy to give my Chief of Staff to you all so he can tell Sean Hannity what to say every day. (Laughter.)”
The point of these “topical” lines is that they might not age well but are meant for the moment.
‘But seriously now’. Every president goes through a visible shift late in the speech. The solemnity of expression signals, “Now we come to the ‘worthy’ part of the presentation.” Or, less artfully, “all joking aside.” Everyone could see this coming from a mile away, but Biden did it very well.
I encourage you to watch this part of the presentation. It starts at roughly time 10:30 of this C-Span video. Here is the important section, which Biden delivered effectively:
”The free press is not the enemy of the people — far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth…
”The First Amendment grants a free press extraordinary protection, but with it comes, as many of you know, a very heavy obligation: to seek the truth as best you can — not to inflame or entertain, but to illuminate and educate.
”I know it’s tough… But it matters. No kidding. It matters. The truth matters. American democracy is not a reality show. (Applause.) It’s not a reality show. (Applause.) It’s reality itself.”
These speeches are hard. I’ve been there and know that. This was a very good job, and edgy job, by Biden and his team.
What Trevor Noah said.
Only a handful of the “entertainment” presentations at the WHCA are remembered beyond their time. Stephen Colbert in 2006, mocking George W. Bush to his face—in a performance that cast a pall within “the room” but stands up well in the longer run. Michelle Wolf in 2018, in a presentation so hard-edged that the WHCA quickly “apologized.” (That retreat made Wolf look better in retrospect, and the WHCA worse.) Al Franken in 1996, which I disproportionately remember because I was one of the people he called out for rocking the establishment-journalism boat.
What will be remembered from Trevor Noah’s performance last night was its conclusion. You can see it as delivered here. Below is the part I want to concentrate on, the very end. With my emphasis added:
“Whether you like it or not, [the press] is a bastion of democracy. And if you ever begin to doubt your responsibilities, if you ever begin to doubt how meaningful it is, look no further than what's happening in Ukraine…
“You realize how amazing it is like in America you have the right to seek the truth and speak the truth. Even if it makes people in power uncomfortable even if it makes your viewers or your readers uncomfortable.
“Understand how amazing that is. I stood here tonight and I made fun of the President of the United States and I'm going to be fine. I'm going to be fine. Right? [Gestures to Biden, in a joking way. Biden claps.]
“Do you really understand what a blessing it is?….
“Honestly, ask yourself this question:
“If Russian journalists who are losing their livelihoods and their freedom for daring to report on what the own government is doing… If they had the freedom to write any words, to show any stories, to ask any questions—if they had basically what you have—Would they be using it in the same way that you do?
“Ask yourself that question every day.
Ask yourself that question every day. Let’s see, starting tomorrow, if that invocation has any effect.