Return of the ‘nerd prom’: Covid-19 and Ukraine war loom over White House correspondents’ dinner

<span>Photograph: Astrid Riecken/EPA</span>
Photograph: Astrid Riecken/EPA

It is a sign that political life in Washington is getting back to something like normal. It is the return of “nerd prom”.

On Saturday the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) will host its annual dinner for the first time since 2019 after a coronavirus-enforced hiatus, and Joe Biden will become the first US president to address the gala since Barack Obama in 2016 following a boycott by Donald Trump, who made little secret of his contempt of the media.

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Capacity for the dinner at the Washington Hilton hotel is more than 2,600 and it is fully booked but the specter of Covid-19 has not entirely lifted. After the Gridiron Club dinner earlier this month, some attendees, including cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, tested positive for coronavirus amid a surge of cases in the nation’s capital.

Although guests on Saturday are required to provide proof of vaccination and same day negative test, Biden, 79, will not be there for the eating portion of the dinner and his top adviser on the coronavirus, Anthony Fauci, 81, decided not to attend “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk”.

Sally Quinn, 80, an author, journalist and socialite, is also staying away. “I can’t imagine going into a room with 2,600 people in this day of Covid,” she said. “Covid is not over, as we learned from the Gridiron, and it’s only gotten worse in Washington since then, so it’s just got to be a super spreader. It’s not worth dying for, that’s for sure.”

The occasion allows the 106-year-old White House Correspondents’ Association to present reporting awards, honor freedom of speech and raise money for scholarships. But the flashy dinner has become a subject of morbid fascination for its earnest schmoozing and perceived narcissism.

Quinn, widow of Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, recalled: “It was this journalistic event and then it got way out of hand, all about celebrities and being seen and the comedy. It seemed to lose its point and, toward the end of the Obama administration, it became grotesque. It was ridiculous and embarrassing.”

Among the celebrities present in 2011 was Trump. He was mercilessly lampooned by Obama, who even displayed a pastiche of what the White House would look like if – as then seemed unimaginable – the reality TV star became president one day.

Journalist Steve Clemons, who sitting at the next table and watching Trump’s reactions, recalled: “He was not laughing at all. He was as grim and as stern looking as could be. It is rumored – and he has said it – that his decision to run for president happened on that night when Barack Obama mocked him.”

In 2018, comedian Michelle Wolf’s after-dinner routine savaged Trump administration officials sitting just feet away and was condemned by some for going too far. Some observers hope that the break and return of the sitting president offer a chance to lower the temperature.

Clemons, editor-at-large of Semafor, a new media company, said: “The tension that began to grow between the president, whoever the entertainment was, and all of this drama became a little bit too unglued and unmoored from the fundamental celebration of what journalism is supposed to be.”

He added: “The president is supposed to be there to essentially embrace the fact that we are holding him to account. It’s supposed to be light hearted. A lot of people misread this as chumminess and there certainly is chumminess on the evening but it doesn’t mean that you’re not teaching people about critical thinking and objective distance reporting in journalism.”

When Obama attended the dinners, the audience was often treated to spoof videos that co-starred Biden, who was then vice-president and seemed to relish a comic turn with his beloved cars and sunglasses.

Clemons, who has been attending the event since the 1990s, observed: “They were like Veep episodes that they were creating. Joe Biden really loves this dinner. Even if he hated the press corps, he would still do this dinner.”

Biden will be expected to make fun of political rivals and deliver topical one-liners. Finding humor in a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans, or in the Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, could be dangerous territory.

The dinner also typically features a roast of the president by an entertainer. This year South African Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, will face one of the toughest audiences for any comedian: a mix of Democrats, Republicans, liberal and conservative journalists and celebrities who will not necessarily all laugh at the same jokes.

Quinn added: “It’s very tricky because a lot of them have bombed or they’ve got too mean or they’ve just not been funny. I would suspect Trevor Noah will be pretty good, but there’s no predicting because even really good people just bomb sometimes if their jokes aren’t good.

“Also, I would think that the tone of this is going to be not as much hilarity since there is the war in Ukraine, Covid, inflation, fires are raging in New Mexico and the world is going to hell. The eat, drink and be merry idea is a little off key.”

She is not the only one avoiding the dinner for one reason or another. Asked whether it is safe for Biden to attend, David Axelrod, a former chief strategist for Obama, told the New York Times: “Well, there is a question of whether it’s EVER appropriate to engage in an exercise in gaudy, celebrity-drenched self-adulation, but that’s a separate question.”