WASHINGTON (AP) — The annual White House press corps gala returned Saturday night along with the roast from Washington, the journalists who cover it and the man in charge: President Joe Biden.
The White House Correspondents Association dinner, sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, featured Biden as the first president in six years to accept an invitation. Donald Trump avoided the event while he was in office.
“Imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year,” Biden told an audience of 2,600 including journalists, government officials and celebrities. “That really would have been a real hit.”
The president used the opportunity to put his comedic chops to the test, downplaying the criticism he has faced in his 15 months in office and taking aim at his predecessor, the GOP and members of the press.
“I am very excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than me,” Biden said in the Hilton ballroom packed with members of the media.
Biden also mocked the slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” which has become the right-wing stand-in for insulting the president.
“Republicans seem to support one guy, a guy named Brandon,” Biden said, eliciting a laugh from the crowd. “He is having a very good year. I’m happy for him.”
As for roasting the GOP, he said, “There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t recorded.”
It also took a hit on Fox News. “I know there are a lot of questions about whether we should meet here tonight because of COVID. Well, we are here to show the country that we are overcoming this pandemic. Also, everyone must show that they are fully vaccinated and boosted,” Biden said. “Just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here. Vaccinated and boosted.”
In addition to speeches by Biden and comedian Trevor Noah, the hour-long event featured recordings from talk show host James Corden, comedian Bill Eichner and even Biden himself.
“Thank you for having me here,” Noah told Biden. “And I was a little confused as to why me, but then they told me you get the highest approval ratings when a biracial African man is standing next to you.”
While most of the speech was chock-full of jabs, Biden took note of the important role journalism plays in American democracy, especially in the last decade.
“I want to say this from the bottom of my heart, that you, the free press, matter more than ever in the last century,” he said. “You are the guardians of the truth.”
The dinner had other serious moments, with tributes to pioneering journalists of color, aspiring journalism students, as well as a dedication to journalists detained, injured or killed while covering the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The premier media event in Washington, the Correspondents’ Dinner brought together Washington journalists like CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid with celebrities Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Brooke Shields, Caitlyn Jenner, Drew Barrymore and Martha Stewart. Among the large swath of government officials and other prominent figures was Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Accompanied by the first lady, the president arrived at the event as he tried to strike a careful balance with a nation fatigued by the pandemic but facing an uptick in infections. The ongoing national threat has struck closer to home for the president: Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive last week and Dr. Anthony Fauci skipped dinner out of health precautions.
The United States was experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases of a highly contagious sub-variant of omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 a day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Still, virus deaths and hospitalizations were near or at pandemic lows, and the BA.2 variant proved less severe than previous virus strains.
After the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and Biden’s cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19. The White House Correspondents Association said it required same-day antigen testing for dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak, later adding a vaccination requirement.
Biden, 79, decided to pass up the food but showed up later for the show. While he planned to wear a mask when he didn’t speak, a maskless president greeted award winners on the dais and could be seen smiling broadly during the dinner program.
The Correspondents’ Dinner debuted in 1921. Three years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend and everyone has since except Trump. However, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon chose not to attend every year of their presidencies, and Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment but called from Camp David.
“What I think this shows is the restoration of the health of the relationship,” Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press” and director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, he said before dinner. “It’s still poignant, there are still tense moments. But that’s okay.”
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