Stephan Lesher Shame on White House Correspondents

November 27, 2018

Never having covered the White House in my reporting days, I never joined the White House Correspondents Association. However, I did attend a few of the fabled dinners sponsored by the White House Correspondents Association. My publication, Newsweek, would buy one or two tables each year for the dinner and our bureau chief would select several of the Washington bureau’s correspondents to attend. Each of us was required to invite and bring to the dinner one of our sources.

In 1974, my dinner guest was Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Unfortunately, President Nixon, who had attended one or two previous dinners, decided that the comedian’s roast was too rough on him the previous year, so he skipped that year’s dinner.

A well-known comedian always hosts the dinner and roasts the president, the press, and politicians generally. Now, however, after some criticism of the most recent dinner hostess, comedian Michelle Wolf, especially from the White House, the Association has allowed itself to be bullied into dropping a comedian as its host and instead have historian and biographer Ron Chernow, whose “Hamilton” was the basis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash musical.

Jimmy Carter skipped two of the dinners, but when Trump declined to attend, he was the first president 30 years to skip the banquet.

In some years, the material of the host has been criticized for being too harsh or inappropriate. But most presidents have accepted the ribbing with laughter and seeming enjoyment. Obama, for example, laughed heartily when host Larry Wilmore observed that he knew why Obama liked to hang out with basketball great Stephen Curry. “Both of you like to drop bombs at long distances,” he said. The reference was to Obama’s excessive use of drones and Curry’s proclivity for scoring long three-point baskets.

It appears as if the 2018 dinner featuring comedian Michelle Wolf proved too much for Trump world, resulting in attacks from Trump and even from some women journalists who professed to being shocked at a joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Referencing Sanders’ well-documented history of defending and repeating Trump’s brazen lies, such as justifying Trump’s wholly unfounded claims that “millions and millions” of illegal votes are cast in America’s elections, Wolf said of Sanders: “I think she is very resourceful — like, she burns facts, then uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye.” Somehow, women journalists including Mika Brzezinski, Maggie Haberman and Andrea Mitchell took umbrage at the line as if it were an insult to Sanders’ looks.

In fact, “smoky eye” is defined as “an effect created by the application of dark eyeshadow on the eyelids and dark eyeliner that is smudged along the upper and lower lash line.” The definition continues, “Smoky eyes are a makeup classic that never go out of style.”

Wolf’s comment was not a brazen insult of a woman’s looks; it was a joke and actually a compliment.

Sadly, the White House Correspondent’s Association issued an apology to Sanders.

To me, Sanders is morally bankrupt and lies as frequently and as blatantly as her boss, who has racked up 6,400 lies in his presidency so far.

Perhaps The White House Press Correspondents dinner may be properly criticized for moving away from its focus on a free and independent press and turning too much toward featuring celebrities and lobbyists at the annual dinner, but I find it nonetheless a blow that this storied group of journalists has allowed itself to be bullied by this dreadful and mean-spirited opponent of the First Amendment — a man who stands firmly with an assassin like Mohammed bin Salman against his intelligence agencies involving the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

So it’s a victory for the bully over the press — a victory acknowledged by Trump in a tweet: “So-called comedian Michelle Wolf bombed so badly last year At the White House Correspondents Dinner that this year, for the first time in decades, they will have an author instead of a comedian. Good first step in come back of a dying evening and tradition! Maybe I will go?”

I hope not only that he won’t go, but also that he will not be invited. It’s a clear demonstration to Trump that if he keeps attacking the press and attacking the First Amendment, he well may get reporters to back down covering his incessant desecration of the Oval Office honestly and fully.

Stephan Lesher is a retired journalist and a Southbury resident.

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