The annual gala of the White House Press Corps returned Saturday night with a roasting of Washington, the journalist covering it and the man at the top: President Joe Biden.
White House Correspondents’ Association dinners, sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, featured Biden as the first president in six years to accept the invitation. Donald Trump withdrew from the program while in office.
“Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year,” Biden told an audience of 2,600 among journalists, government officials and celebrities. “Now that would have actually been a real coup.”
The president took the opportunity to test his humor skills, highlighting the criticism he had faced during his 18 months in office, targeting his predecessor, the Republican Party, and members of the press.
“I’m excited to be here tonight as the only group of Americans with a low approval rating,” Biden told the Hilton Ballroom full of members of the media.
Biden also highlighted the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan, which has become a stand-in for the president’s right to be sworn in.
“Republicans seem to be supporting a fella, someone named Brandon,” Biden said, causing the crowd to burst into laughter. “He’s having a really good year. I’m happy for him.”
As for roasting the GOP, he said, “I can’t say anything about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.”
In addition to speeches by Biden and comedian Trevor Noah, the hours-long program taped comedic skits that featured late-night TV hosts, comedians, and even Biden himself.
“Thank you for having me here,” Noah told Biden. “And I was a little confused about why I am, but then I was told that you get your highest approval rating when there’s an African African man standing next to you.”
While much of the speech was full of bite, Biden called attention to the important role of journalism in American democracy, especially in the last decade.
“By the bottom of my heart, I mean that you, the free press, matter far more than what you have done in the last century,” he said. “You are the guardian of truth.”
There were other solemn moments at the dinner, with tributes to leading journalists of color, dedications to aspiring student journalists as well as journalists detained, injured or killed during coverage of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The flagship event for the news media in Washington, the Correspondents’ Dinner brought together Washington reporters such as Nation World News’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reed, along with Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Brooke Shields, Caitlyn Jenner, Drew Barrymore and Martha Stewart. Among the large contingent 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 a pandemic-weary nation still facing a surge in infections. The ongoing national threat has struck close to home for the president: Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive last week and Dr. Anthony Fauci skipped dinner for health precautions.
The US was experiencing a COVID-19 case spike from a highly infectious subvariant of Omicron, with confirmed cases rising from 26,000 a month earlier to nearly 44,000 per day. Nevertheless, virus deaths and hospitalizations were at or near epidemic levels, with the BA.2 variant proving to be less severe than the earlier virus strain.
In the wake of 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 already required same-day antigen testing for attendees at its dinner before the gridiron outbreak, then added the requirement for vaccination.
Biden, 79, decided to finish the meal, but came back for the event later. While he planned to be masked if he did not speak, a masked president greeted the award winners on stage and they could be seen smiling widely during the dinner event.
The Correspondents’ Dinner began in 1921. Three years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to participate, and everyone except Trump has. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend his presidency each year, and Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment—but called from Camp David.
“I think it shows that there is a restoration of relationship health,” said book author Harold Holzer. Presidents vs. Press and director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, said before dinner. “It’s still prickly, there are still tense moments. But that’s okay.”