The Corner

Politics & Policy

How the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Gave Us the Trump Campaign

McKay Coppins has a long, enlightening and depressing read in BuzzFeed arguing with a lot of anecdotes that Donald Trump decided to run for president chiefly out of a combination of spite and a Fredo Corleone–like hunger for respect. It’s a window into Trump’s character that is simultaneously appalling (when you consider what motivates him) and sympathetic. Despite being born to wealth, he’s lived his whole life as the nouveau riche kid from Queens whose fame, fortune, Ivy League degree, fashion-model wives, TV shows, casinos, beauty pageants, football team, political largesse . . . none of it could get his old-money Manhattan society neighbors, the smart kids, the political movers and shakers to treat him as a peer, an equal, a man of consequence. And in its own way, that resentment has attracted a lot of supporters who see the world the same way, even as it has repelled a lot of people who had a much steeper climb in life than Trump but lacked his gnawing insecurity.

There’s a lot to digest here, and few people come out of Coppins’ piece looking good; even its author has his own remorse over mocking Trump’s odds of running, as did many of us who had observed his numerous publicity stunt feints in the past. It’s clear that the Romney campaign’s sensible-at-the-time efforts at keeping a safe distance from Trump fed into Trump’s sense of grievance at the GOP, helping egg him on to a campaign aimed at humbling the party and fracturing its voter base. But perhaps the strongest conclusion one can draw from it is that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner should be abolished.

The WHCD was once a sort of icon of well-intentioned false bonhomie, in which the administration and its adversaries in the press would lay down their swords for a night of good-natured ribbing. The president would deliver some self-deprecating humor, sometimes pointedly making light of their own failures: Bill and Hillary Clinton satirizing the “Harry and Louise” ads that sank HillaryCare, George W. Bush doing a mock hunt for missing WMDs. A comedian would come in to roast the President, as Stephen Colbert did to Bush in 2006. True believers and populists hated the way it made light of substance and played into the idea that everybody in DC thinks the whole thing is a game, but there was also a virtue in enforced civility and the Commander-in-Chief eating humble pie for laughs.

Under President Obama, the dinner has taken on a decidedly different cast: lauded as the “nerd prom,” it confers cool and Hollywood glamor on workaday journalists, and it typically features the President and a left-leaning comedian tag-teaming Obama’s critics, to the laughter of a courtier media that is already predisposed to take the President’s side in such battles. But the 2011 dinner was especially ugly. Coppins details at length how President Obama’s pique at Trump for bringing the “birther” nonsense to a head overrode Obama’s better judgment and led him to tear into Trump to his face:

On the night of the dinner, Trump took his seat at the center of the ballroom, perfectly situated so that all 2,500 lawmakers, movie stars, journalists, and politicos in attendance could see him….But as soon as the plates were cleared and the program began, it became agonizingly clear that Trump was not royalty in this room: He was the court jester.

The president used his speech to pummel Trump with one punchline after another…When host Seth Meyers took the mic, he piled on with his own rat-a-tat of jokes, many of which seemed designed deliberately to inflame Trump’s outer-borough insecurities: “His whole life is models and gold leaf and marble columns, but he still sounds like a know-it-all down at the OTB.”

The longer the night went on, the more conspicuous Trump’s glower became. He didn’t offer a self-deprecating chuckle, or wave warmly at the cameras, or smile with the practiced good humor of the aristocrats and A-listers who know they must never allow themselves to appear threatened by a joke at their expense. Instead, Trump just sat there, stone-faced, stunned, simmering — Carrie at the prom covered in pig’s blood.

Obama, of course, had his reasons for wanting petty vengeance over the birth certificate controversy, which he not-unreasonably regarded as racist. But he’s also the prime example of a guy who has always been the coolest kid in the room (“I’m LeBron, baby”), and the spectacle of him using the platform of an event originally designed for lèse-majesté to lock arms with a TV comic and gang-tackle Trump’s ego to his face to the laughter of a crowd that Obama fit into and Trump didn’t is one of the more graceless things he’s done. His speechwriters, John Favreau and Jon Lovett, express some remorse now for having let the “circus-like atmosphere” goad them, and Obama, into it. One doubts that the president has any second thoughts; he rarely does.

But what comes off clearly is that the WHCD has become just another vehicle for amplifying, rather than leavening, the presidential megaphone and the bitterness of our present politics, while widening the gulf between the DC “cool kids” and the rest of the country. It’s a tradition that has outlived its usefulness, and should die.

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