WASHINGTON — Looking out at a ballroom full of celebrities, journalists, politicians and power brokers, President Biden told the attendees at Saturday night’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that his appreciation for press freedom had deep — very, very deep — roots.
“I believe in the First Amendment,” the president stated, and “not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”
Though he was not, in point of fact, present during the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, a roast is a roast, and Biden’s advanced age was too easy a target for even the president himself.
Later, headliner Roy Wood Jr., of “The Daily Show” alluded to recent protests in France following President Emmanuel Macron’s push to raise the retirement age there. “They rioted when the retirement age went up to 64. They rioted because they didn’t want to work until 64! Meanwhile, in America, we have an 80-year-old man begging us for four more years of work,” he joked of Biden, who laughed and clapped from a few feet away.
“‘Let me finish the job,’” Wood mused about the president’s reelection pitch. “That’s not a campaign slogan — that’s a plea.”
Wood could not help but acknowledge the self-congratulatory nature of the annual rite, informally known as the “nerd prom” and held in a city (somewhat) affectionately deemed “Hollywood for ugly people.”
Here were journalists celebrating other journalists with whom they often competed for scoops and sometimes bitterly scolded on Twitter. They handed out awards to the applause of the politicians they often covered unflatteringly and the unapproachable celebrities looking to burnish their credentials as responsible citizens and supporters of the free press.
“I’m happy to be here at this event amongst government officials who speak to MSNBC, former government officials who now work at MSNBC and future government officials who currently work at MSNBC,” Wood offered.
In his own remarks, Biden told Wood that he would be “fine with your jokes, but I’m not sure about Dark Brandon,” a reference to an Internet meme that casts Biden as a threatening figure with laser beams emanating from his eyes. In keeping with the Dark Brandon brand, Biden then slipped on a pair of his signature aviator sunglasses.
Both Biden and Wood argued that without a free press, democracy cannot flourish. But as Wood pointed out, a free press isn’t cheap. “Say what you want about a conspiracy theory, but at least it’s affordable,” he observed.
The imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich also cast a pall over the proceedings. In his speech — which opened with emphatic urgency that sounded out of place at a comedy roast before moving on, with the “Jimmy Madison” line, to more humorous matters — Biden vowed to bring home Gershkovich and other Americans held captive abroad.
The reporter’s parents, who emigrated from the Soviet Union, were in attendance on Saturday night, as was basketball star Brittney Griner, who spent several months in a Russian prison before being freed in exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving an arms trafficking sentence in an American prison.
“The free press is a pillar, perhaps the pillar, of a free society. Not its enemy,” Biden said, seeming to reference not only autocratic foreign powers like Russia but also an increasingly authoritarian strain within the American conservative movement. In Florida, lawmakers recently proposed annulling the protections enshrined by the landmark Supreme Court case New York Times Company v. Sullivan, which holds that First Amendment freedom of speech protections limit the ability of public officials to sue for defamation.
That state’s governor and likely presidential candidate Ron DeSantis returned home after a trip abroad punctuated by a reportedly “horrendous” meeting with British business executives in London.
There was little love for him in Washington either.
“I had a lot of Ron DeSantis jokes for tonight, but Mickey Mouse beat me to it,” Biden said in one of the night’s best-received lines, a reference to the governor’s deepening feud with Disney. “After his reelection as governor, he was asked if he had a mandate,” Biden continued, delighting in skewering the prickly young governor whom he might face in next year's presidential election. “He said, ‘Hell no, I’m straight.’”
DeSantis was not present at the gala, but attending was Maryland’s new Democratic governor, Wes Moore, the first Black man to lead that state and only the third elected Black governor in the nation’s history. Already the subject of presidential speculation, Moore courted a considerable receiving line of well-wishers and admirers, seemingly making him one of the night’s most sought-after guests.
The two Tennessee legislators Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — recently expelled from the state Legislature for speaking out in favor of gun control, then reinstated following a national outcry — were also in attendance.
Pearson was one of the very few guests to wear a mask; while attendees were required to show proof of a same-day negative coronavirus diagnostic test, there was little evidence that a pandemic was still at work, killing a thousand Americans each week. Last year, the dinner's host Trevor Noah, of “The Daily Show,” joked that he was presiding over “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event.” This year, the coronavirus was a passé topic that merited a lone Anthony Fauci joke from Wood.
Where Covington & Burling law partners sit next to Netflix comedians, White House deputy assistants and New York Times executives, this black-tie gala may not exactly be an apt indicator of the national mood. It is, however, a good way to take stock of the animal spirits pervading the halls of power in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.
On Saturday, those spirits seemed to be high, as the Washington Hilton filled with celebrities, including comedian Billy Eichner, “Succession” star J. Smith-Cameron, Lisa Vanderpump of the “The Real Housewives” franchise, Gayle King, Kelly Ripa and others.
One could converse with current White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, former White House press secretary and current MSNBC host Jen Psaki or fictional White House press secretary Joshua Lyman, of NBC's storied "West Wing" franchise. Lyman was played by Bradley Whitford, who gamely snapped selfies with guests.
At the heavily guarded entrance to the long driveway of the Washington Hilton hotel — where the dinner is traditionally held and where Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in 1981 — security stopped a heavyset, middle-aged man, appropriately attired but not looking especially awed by the occasion and in a seeming rush to get inside.
Asked to produce a ticket, former United States Attorney General William Barr attested that, no, he was not an imposter trying to cadge a free steak dinner.
Not present was Don Lemon, the recently fired CNN anchor, though he was spotted at a Friday night party on the Georgetown waterfront hosted by United Talent Agency, the Hollywood power broker.
“Don Lemon released a statement saying he got fired from CNN, then CNN released a statement saying that they offered Don a meeting,” Wood said, earning apparent glares from the CNN executives and personalities in the audience. “They had to part ways, because Don Lemon can’t even accurately report a story about Don Lemon.”
Fox News came in for predictable ribbing, with Wood praising (though that may not be quite the right word) fired anchor Tucker Carlson for “breaking the a**hole ceiling.” He also professed to be a huge fan of Dominion Voting Systems, whose suit against Fox News produced a $787 million settlement earlier in April.
Wood even tried out a new slogan for the voting machine company: “If your election needs the truth, put Dominion in your booth.” He later displayed a similar admiration for Smartmatic, another voting machine company suing Fox.
As always, the evening concluded with the well-coiffed guests heading for after-parties at nearby embassies and hotels. Handlers for John Legend and Chrissy Teigen formed a human chain to push through a crowd waiting to ascend an escalator.
What you're that famous, you apparently don't have to wait.