Guess who’s not coming to dinner, and probably a good thing, too. Neither Donald Trump nor the not so loyal opposition can be trusted to sup together without sharp elbows, sneers and insults. Before the second bottle of wine is uncorked, the hard rolls (and most years the rolls are really hard) would be flying across the tables.
The president, who has the thinnest skin of any of the presidents before him, has sent his regrets to the White House Correspondents Association, saying thanks but no thanks. He has to wash his hair on the last Saturday night of April.
If anybody has thinner skin than the president, however, it’s the average self-important Washington journalist. There’s not a silly millimeter difference between the thickness of presidential and journalistic skin. A sheet of cigarette paper by comparison is the thickness of a telephone book.
They don’t call the annual dinner “the nerd prom” for nothing. It’s a big night indeed because it enables a few correspondents of the association to be big shots, if only for a few hours. The ladies get to wear dresses that stay in the closet on other nights of the year, and the guys get to struggle with their clip-on bowties. A good time is rarely had by all.
But the Donald bailed this year, and why wouldn’t he? A thousand media notabilities have been dreaming up slights, snubs and insults, hoping for the opportunity to send a zinger his way, though the diners rarely get close enough to see how closely he shaved for the occasion. (Presidents are men enough without a lot of stubble and brush on cheek and chin.)
Both the Donald and the opposition have been cannonading at each other for months, trading tweets, barbs and bazooka fire, and neither side seems in a mood for a truce, even for an evening. The president tweeted his best wishes for the evening and the correspondents association merely said it “takes note” of the president’s thanks but no thanks, and said the dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.”
That’s high-minded, and all that, but it also sounds like it might have been written by the Donald himself, full of puffery and self-importance. The president’s snub could be a learning moment for the scribblers, a moment to reflect on how scrambling for a few crumbs of celebrity has brought Washington journalism low.
The nerds who run the nerd prom long ago gave away the franchise in pursuit of show-biz celebrities, taking seriously the notion that the correspondents’ dinner is where celebrity and self-importance meet, and multiply. Show-biz celebrities regard Washington as “Hollywood for ugly people,” and Washington regards Hollywood as Airhead Central, good only as the place where presidential candidates go to collect campaign cash. The correspondents’ dinner has become an occasion to celebrate Elmer, the little brother of Oscar.
Some of the glitteries, as they imagine themselves, are beginning to shun the dinner. Vanity Fair magazine, which does not even cover the White House, said it would not have an after-party this year, and Bloomberg media and New Yorker magazine canceled events. Slowly but surely, the party might be reduced to what it once was.
The association was organized on the eve of World War I when a rumor ran through the press pack that President Woodrow Wilson, a starchy Democrat, in league with Congress would choose who could attend the president’s press conference. The rumor was apparently not true; nothing happened. The correspondents association has no connection to the White House, for which both presidents and correspondents are glad.
In the beginning and continuing for decades, the annual dinner was for the correspondents and their favorite news sources. When I came to Washington to work for the old National Observer in 1963, I was told to invite a favorite source and it didn’t occur to me to try for the likes of Jane Russell or Mickey Mantle. “Remember who you are,” an editor told me. The day before the dinner I was dispatched to cover a riot in Alabama, anyway. No celebrities for me.
The entertainment, which has descended in recent years to comedians (or they say they are), but once upon a time Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Fanny Brice, Danny Kaye, Irving Berlin, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole entertained after dinner. Some years the comedy-club entertainers are funnier than in other years.
The annual dinner will no doubt survive the Donald’s snub, and he will survive the angst of the media. We’ll find other things to feed our angst. We always have. It’s called life, and it goes on.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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