Along with millions of other Americans, I laughed as President George W. Bush and comedian Steve Bridges — the comedian who perfectly impersonated Bush, President Barack Obama and many other celebrities — stood side-by-side and dished out funny one-liners at Bush’s expense during the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.
Whatever you thought of Bush’s politics, he was a good sport at the annual press dinner, which has been roasting presidents and other political figures for nearly 100 years in Washington. Since Calvin Coolidge became the first U.S. president to attend the WHCD in 1924, American presidents have been attending the annual dinner to dutifully take the digging one-liners directed their way and even stand at the podium and poke fun at themselves. It’s a brand of self-deprecating humor that has defined the WHCD over the years.
Unfortunately, it’s a self-deprecating humor that has disappeared over the past decade as the annual dinner has turned from a genial affair where everyone laughs to a one-sided display of mean-spiritedness and rudeness.
Michelle Wolf’s attacks on White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckeby Sanders at the most recent WHCD, held in Washington last weekend, weren’t funny. The comedian’s “jokes” were despicable and, frankly, disgusting. Not satisfied with merely attacking Sanders’ integrity, she also attacked her looks, while Sanders sat quietly a few feet away and absorbed the hatred that was being cast her way.
Jokes are meant to be funny. Which means everyone laughs. If someone’s not laughing, it’s no longer a joke. These are things we teach our kids when we tell them not to pick on someone at school because of the way they look, or the way they talk, or the way they play basketball at recess. It’s the standard bullying speech that we give our kids as we outline behaviors that we will not condone as parents. Yet, too many of us chuckle at remarks like Wolf’s, then rush to Twitter to defend her.
Critics of Donald Trump have sniffed in disdain at his decision to skip the first White House Correspondents Dinners of his presidency, yet Wolf’s diatribe at Saturday’s event justified the president’s decision.
I’m not sure when the WHCD went off the rails — when it stopped being funny and started to be a flat-out attack on policies and ideologies — but it’s a trend that pre-dates the Trump presidency. In truth, it probably dates back a few decades, to when American politics started to move towards the sewer. But it was drastically hurried along by Obama, who began using his time at the podium to launch attacks on his political foes, beginning to abandon the self-deprecating brand of humor that had been the tradition of his predecessors.
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking Trump is an innocent victim. If his initial decision to skip the WHCD last year was truly just another assault in his long-running feud with the press, he continues to do himself more harm than good by ignoring opportunities to find common ground with the journalists who are critiquing — and will continue to critique — every minute aspect of his administration. More likely, his decision to skip the dinner was because the ego-fueled Trump lacks the ability to self-deprecate. And mean-spiritedness is right up the president’s alley, lest anyone forget the shameful moment when Trump stood on a stage before a throng of supporters and mocked a reporter’s physical disability.
Yet, that hardly excuses Wolf’s attacks on Sanders at this year’s dinner, and it certainly doesn’t excuse the rush to defend her. After all, folks like Wolf have accused Trump and his supporters of bigotry, driving the wedge of hatred into the fabric of American society, and attacks on women — the very same behaviors displayed by Wolf on Saturday.
Not everyone turned a blind eye to Wolf’s shameful remarks. There were plenty of Democrats and journalists who criticized the comedian, including the New York Times’ White House correspondent, Maggie Haberman. But there were also plenty who quickly and vigorously defended her.
As a journalist, the most aggravating part of Wolf’s remarks is the damage that is done to the public’s perception of the media. She may not be a journalist, but the White House Correspondents Association bears the brunt of the fallout from what its speakers say at the annual dinner. And, to Joe Q. Public, the White House Correspondents Association equals media in general. As does the New York Times, CNN and other media organizations that have cast off any pretense of objectivity since Trump’s election win in 2016. The public’s faith in the mainstream media has been irreparably eroded, and events like Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner aren’t helping to rectify the press’s image.