Just the Facts

Five Facts on the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

By No Labels
April 30, 2018 | Blog

Comedian Michelle Wolf launched a debate with her performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday after critics said her barbed remarks about the Trump administration went too far.

Wolf’s jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders drew the most attention, with some claiming she criticized the White House Press Secretary’s physical appearance. Sanders, who sat feet away from Wolf at the dinner, made no reply to the comments, but President Trump later tweeted that the dinner was “a very big, boring bust,” and added that “the so-called comedian really ‘bombed.’”

For those outside the Washington bubble, here’s what you need to know about the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner and its place in American politics.

 

What is the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner?

First held in 1921, the dinner is an annual black-tie gala hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association that has become a Washington tradition. Often called the “nerd prom,” it gathers journalists, pundits, lawmakers, cabinet secretaries—sometimes even the president (though not this year)—to celebrate press freedom and the idea that the relationship between officials and media can be both respectful and adversarial.

The dinner has grown to attract thousands of guests and is now televised live. Sometimes Hollywood figures even make an appearance, though Vanity Fair reported that, “for the second year in a row, the dinner was absent major Hollywood wattage.” The association, which was founded in 1914, also hands out journalism awards and scholarships at the dinner.

 

Why does the dinner matter?

From a policy standpoint, it does not. However, it is one of the few times that much of official Washington and the media that cover them are gathered in the same room in an unofficial capacity, with the media setting the agenda (at press conferences and other events, it is usually the other way around). As such, it offers a window on the relationship between the Washington press corps and the administration. How the administration handles the dinner, which is often more roast than toast, can be revealing.

 

Why is the dinner sometimes criticized?

Some have criticized the dinner as an example of Washington reporters getting too close to the people they cover. It has also had its share of controversial performances over the years. In 2006, several aides to then-president George W. Bush walked out during a performance by comedian Stephen Colbert. In 2016, comedian Larry Wilmore used the n-word in a shout out to then-President Obama, which many found disrespectful.

 

Why was Wolf’s performance controversial?

In her performance, Wolf took aim at Trump and many of his inner circle, but it was comments about Sanders that drew the most attention. In a joke about her name, Wolf said, “I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” adding “What’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?” Later, she 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. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies.”

As The New York Times reported, “it was an Earthy performance by Correspondents’ dinner standards, if nothing out of place in an average comedy club. But feedback from the left and the right quickly leapt to extremes.” Margaret Talev, president of the association, later said that Wolf’s schtick was “not in the spirit” of the organization’s mission.

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