WASHINGTON — The annual White House Press Corps Gala returned Saturday night with the Washington roast, the reporters who cover it and the man at the helm: 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 during his tenure.
“Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year,” Biden told an audience of 2,600 people, including journalists, government officials and celebrities. “Now that really would have been a real coup.”
The president took the opportunity to test out his comedic chops, shedding light on the criticism he faced during his 15 months in office while taking aim at his predecessor, the Republican Party and members of the press.
“I’m so thrilled to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than mine,” Biden told the Hilton ballroom packed with media members.
Biden also shed light on the slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” which has become the right-wing surrogate for swearing at the president.
“Republicans seem to be supporting a guy, a guy named Brandon,” Biden said, prompting an outcry of laughter from the crowd. “He is having a very good year. I’m happy for him.
Regarding the GOP roast, he said, “There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.”
He also took a hit at 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 going through this pandemic. Additionally, everyone must prove that they are fully vaccinated and boosted,” Biden said. “Just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They are all here. Vaccinated and boosted.
In addition to speeches from Biden and comedian Trevor Noah, the hour-long event recorded skits 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 I was told that you get your highest approval rating when a biracial African is standing next to you.”
While the majority of the speech was filled with sharp jabs, Biden noted the important role journalism has played in American democracy, especially over the past decade.
“I mean this from the bottom of my heart, which you, the free press, matter more than ever in the last century,” he said. “You are the guardians of truth.”
The dinner had other serious moments, with tributes to pioneer journalists of color, aspiring student journalists as well as a dedication to journalists detained, injured or killed while covering the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. .
The premier event for news media in Washington, the Correspondents’ Dinner brought together Washington reporters 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 wide array of government officials and other prominent figures was Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Accompanied by the first lady, the president came to the event while trying to strike a careful balance with the nation weary from the pandemic but facing rising infections. The continuing national threat has hit closer to home for the president: Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive last week and Dr. Anthony Fauci skipped dinner for health precautions.
The United States was experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases due to a highly contagious subvariant of omicron, with confirmed infections reaching around 44,000 a day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Still, virus deaths and hospitalizations were near or at pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier 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 was requiring same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak, then added a vaccination requirement.
Biden, 79, decided to skip the meal but show up later for the program. While planning to be masked when not speaking, a maskless chairman greeted the winners on the dais and could be seen smiling broadly during the dinner program.
The Correspondents’ Dinner began in 1921. Three years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend and everyone has done so since, except Trump. However, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon chose not to attend each year of their presidencies, and Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment – but called from Camp David.
“What I think it shows is the restoration of health to the relationship,” Harold Holzer, author of “The Presidents vs. The Press” book and director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York , said before dinner. “It’s still barbed wire, there are still tense moments. But it is okay.”