(Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents Dinner photo credit)
If you hang around Washington as long as I have, you get invited to many event — dinners, receptions, meetings, conventions, trade shows — many of which take place at the same group of 4-5 hotels large enough to hold a big crowd. The ballrooms of these hotels become so familiar that they begin to feel reminiscent of the old high school gym at prom time, with alpha males and females all decked out in their party clothes air kissing casual friends all the while looking over shoulders to see if anybody famous or at least more important is in the room. The scene is complete with some of us wall flowers who prefer to sit along the sides of the room wondering if we are under-dressed in sensible fancy jackets and flat shoes while also wondering how anyone can walk in stilettos.
The only thing missing is the gym balcony where the chaperones kept a watchful eye to prevent things from getting really out of hand. In my high school, that would have been Sister Juanita, eagle-eye watching the throng below and ready to pounce without warning should any behaviors fall below her rather high standards for decorum.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner (#WHCD) needs Sister Juanita. The “nerd prom” as the cool kids seem to call it, the event is a black-tie-and-stiletto evening of dining and drinking among journalists and the politicians they cover, a questionable premise to begin with, all somehow supposedly tied together for the good purpose of raising money for journalism scholarships along with a dubious sideshow of roasting both the pols and the scribes.
Apparently, this year’s #WHCD got a bit out of hand, depending on which critique you read, or your take on comedian Michelle Wolf’s “roast” jokes. She said the kind of unkind things about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway that would definitely have incurred a week’s worth of Sr. Juanita’s detention back-in-the-day because no matter how much you might dislike someone — or disagree with their politics — it’s just not right to make fun of their appearance or wish harm to come to them.
I was not at the dinner (but full disclosure, I was at one of the receptions before the dinner), so did not hear the jokes “live,” but I saw the video afterward. One take can be, oh, c’mon, it’s just jokes! But on the other hand, in these fractious times, some things just are not funny.
Which gets to my point: at a dinner supposedly devoted to celebrating freedom of the press — and at a time when that very freedom is under daily attack by President Trump and his allies — the press should not squander its vital voice and critical role as a counterweight to government by sloshing around in the mud pit of insults and vicious personal attacks. As Sister Juanita often said, just because you have the freedom to do it doesn’t mean you should do it. In fact, prudence and maturity suggest you should not, given the current ugly political circumstances of our nation.
We are in a political moment that is about as dangerous as possible. A demagogue is the president, and he thinks nothing of trashing anyone who disagrees with him. Trump calls people names routinely, he lies constantly, he encourages racial and ethnic hatred, he foments violence. He did all of that at a rally in Michigan on the same night as the #WHCD. He is systematically stripping our nation of protections for vulnerable people, for people who have come to depend on civil rights protections, on healthcare access, on humane practices on immigration and refugees. He is promoting a return to policies and practices that are environmentally disastrous. He is virtually destroying the State Department while engaging in some kind of international theater that has the potential to go very wrong. He has created the cruelest, most inhumane and unhinged administration ever in American history.
We don’t need a comedian mocking Trump’s staff when we need to use our precious freedoms to call out the real threats to our way of life.
I disagree with just about everything Press Secretary Sanders and White House Counselor Conway say. But the White House Correspondents’ Association made a serious strategic error by allowing them to be mocked so personally at the dinner. Disagree vigorously, but do not disparage.
Why not? Doesn’t Trump disparage everyone who disagrees with him? Doesn’t Sanders display only contempt for the press at her daily briefings? Doesn’t Conway spin the truth in ways that makes your head hurt? Yes, indeed, but the worst possibly response is to get down on that same level and behave in that same way, hurling insults back, going tit-for-tat, nanny-nanny-boo-boo. That’s just like high school. That’s why the Nerd Prom needs a chaperone. Somebody has to start being the grown up in this country.