The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is one of the Washington’s most bizarre traditions. The event, which has been running just over a century, is nominally supposed to celebrate excellence in reporting on the White House — the use of journalism as a way of speaking truth to power. In recent years, it has been increasingly criticized for becoming a long, self-congratulatory celebration of how awesome everyone in attendance is, complete with an inexplicable red carpet that Tom Brokaw claimed was less dignified than a junior prom — a fitting comparison given the dinner’s “Nerd Prom” moniker.
In particular, the dinner is indicative of an uncomfortable closeness between journalists and the politicians they are, in theory, supposed to be capable of criticizing. Still, those interactions are instructive — last night’s event did position a supposedly loosened-up President Obama next to comedians, actors and pundits. And, as always, the comparison is instructive, even at a gala so easy to complain about that its mockery was a relatively unassailable plotline on The Newsroom. Here are five things we learned from this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
1. The Obama years are coming to an end, and everyone is pretty happy about it
One of host Cecily Strong’s first priorities was congratulating Republicans on their imminent victory — Obama is finally being “forced out of office” by term limits. The rest of the evening was permeated by a certain weariness with the administration, a sense that everything had been said and that Obama had, in a sense, won by surviving to the end of his presidency. There weren’t many jabs at the president directly.
Strong did get in a few pointed remarks, questioning why he didn’t make it to Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (“Paris is so beautiful. Mr. President, you should really think about going there some time.”) and accusing him of not taking ISIS seriously in a reference to a Saturday Night Live sketch (“I mean, if anyone is guilty of taking ISIS too lightly, it’s him”). But she didn’t come anywhere near, say, Stephen Colbert’s magnificent performance in 2006.
In his own speech, Obama jovially took the pressure off, characterizing the coming months as the “fourth quarter” of his presidency, which would find him completing something that “rhymed with” a “bucket list.” Many of his remarks referred to issues that were more controversial early in his presidency, including jokes about the persistent belief that he is Muslim or was born in Kenya. But the president got to tout statistics about insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and take a bit of a victory lap, the full extent of which could likely be encapsulated by the pointed brevity of his traditional Donald Trump joke: “Donald Trump is here. Still.”
2. President Obama wishes he could have his own Key & Peele “anger translator”
For the conclusion of his speech, President Obama brought out Key & Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key in his recurring role as presidential anger translator, Luther. For those unfamiliar with the show, the sketch rests on a simple, undeniable premise–that President Obama is, for political reasons, incapable of fully expressing his anger at much of the problems in Washington, with Luther serving as a manifestation of the intoxicating possibility that he could say what he really thought.
Luther’s appearance allowed for just such venting–confusion at the fact that the Dinner is a requirement for the president at all, ever-so-slightly edgier versions of his typical jokes (“Count on Fox to terrify all white people with some nonsense!”), and, above all, anger about the country’s inability to make progress combating climate change. (To the point where Luther himself had to step in and restrain the president, who did not appear to be fully joking.) As the end of the event, the Luther bit led to something of a jarring transition with the most serious moment of the night – a remembrance of journalists murdered and kidnapped in the course of doing their jobs.
3. The 2016 elections have started in earnest
Rather than jokes about the president, the biggest targets of the evening were the people gunning to replace him. With 19 months to go until the election, there were ample barbs thrown at Jeb Bush for “mistakenly” identifying as Hispanic a few years ago, Rand Paul entering the family business of not getting elected president, and everyone competing for the Koch brothers’ money. Even Chris Christie got a few shoutouts! It’s going to be a long election cycle.
4. And Hillary Clinton is in by far the best position
The real 2016 star was Hillary Clinton, who was referenced in mostly good-natured jokes about her van trip to Iowa and the supposed inevitability of her presidency, a theme Strong hammered home between jokes about her husband getting an above-ground pool at the White House. (“I think she feels the same way Meryl Streep feels when she’s asked to audition for something… You know I’m going to win.”)
Some material focused on her e-mail controversy or the mismanaged funds of the Clinton Foundation, but far more typical was Strong’s attempt to get the collected journalists to swear not to talk about Hillary’s appearance, because “that is not journalism.” Meanwhile, the other potential Democratic candidates were mentioned entirely as also-rans. Poor Martin O’Malley.
5. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is still terrible
As celebrities, politicians, and journalists rubbed elbows, there was no mention of any of the major news stories happening, both locally (unrest during the Baltimore protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray) and across the world (the devastating earthquake in Nepal). The closest anyone came to a biting discussion, or even acknowledgment, of these issues were Strong’s twin jokes about police brutality: claiming that Obama’s hair is “so white now it can talk back to the police” and that the Secret Service are the “only law enforcement agency that will get in trouble if a black man gets shot.” The fact that police brutality can easily be absorbed into the mild-mannered climate of the event is chilling.
Luther may have questioned the purpose of the Correspondents’ Dinner, and Strong deflated its sense of self-importance with a joke about last year’s host Joel McHale (who “proved that speaking at this dinner is an amazing opportunity that can take you from starring in a show on NBC all the way to starring on that same show on Yahoo!”), CNN correspondent Errol Louis put it best: the news coming out of Baltimore “sounds like complete chaos,” but “you know, something else is going on–the most powerful man in the world is going to tell some jokes.”