Perspective: Obama, O'Brien Can't Redeem WHCD

The requisite zingers were there, but the event feels dated and tone-deaf

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the White House Correspondents’ Assn. Dinner is the way its defenders cling to the concept, as if this were still the 1980s, when President Reagan and Tip O’Neill could beat each other’s brains out in the public arena by day then throw back drinks together in the evening.

CNN did all it could to justify joining CSPAN by airing the Hollywood-saturated event as a two-hour special, but the conspicuous vamping gave away the network – and its embarrassingly breathless coverage – early on.

“Obama, Conan Speak Soon,” read the script across the bottom of the screen at 9:03 p.m. ET, which is accurate, if you translate the word “soon” to mean “in 70 minutes, after we have to sit through Ed Henry, Gayle King, and an extended commercial for Netflix’s ‘House of Cards.’ ”

As always, the event boiled down to two things: The president’s stand-up turn, lampooning (among other things) the press and fellow Washington figures; and the headliner, this year Conan O’Brien, facing the thankless job of spinning out political satire to a room full of actual D.C. figures, as well as a lot of Hollywood window-dressing.

Obama, for his part (and give most of the credit to his writers), struck just the right tone, with a few clunky lines but a couple of out-of-the-park zingers, his best being that he’s “not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”

In terms of media targets, the President spread the wealth among the cable news networks, and even catered to the Hollywood crowd by referring to his 2-for-22 shooting performance at an event where he played basketball, quipping, “Two hits, 20 misses. The executives at NBC asked, ‘What’s your secret?’ ”

As for O’Brien, he fought his way through what’s always a pretty tough room, making only one vague reference to the recent changes at “The Tonight Show” and his own history with NBC – a missed opportunity if there ever was one, especially after both Obama and WHCA prez Ed Henry delivered digs at his expense.

Biting the hand that feeds him, the TBS host seemingly saved some of his harshest barbs for sister Turner network CNN, skewering correspondent John King’s errors during the Boston Marathon coverage and the channel’s low ratings. Then again, O’Brien also compared print journalism to being a blacksmith, joked that the perfect name for a South Carolina congressman would be “Jesus H. Gun” and slapped at both Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who happened to be sitting side by side, grimacing more than smiling.

Admittedly, it’s hard to read a room that groans at a joke about George Stephanopoulos’ height (hardly the funniest thing about “Good Morning America”), and O’Brien just sort of powered past the uneven response. He closed strong, though, by referencing his Boston roots and then casting his Hollywood movie about Washington – which was funny, but had the misfortune to follow Obama’s “Lincoln” spoof and the too-long “House of Nerds” riff featuring Kevin Spacey. (At this point, even Netflix should be getting sick of its own media coverage.)

“This event never gets old,” Gayle King said during her introduction, which is a riot, since the 2013 edition was already feeling long in the tooth by the time she stopped feting this year’s scholarship winners.

Frankly, nothing Saturday made a compelling case against those (including yours truly) who see the White House Correspondents Dinner as hopelessly dated and more than a little tone-deaf – underscoring the old adage that Washington is just Hollywood for ugly people, while reinforcing how starstruck the showbiz elite are when it comes to rubbing elbows with politicians.

Still, the biggest loser might have been CNN, less because of the jokes at its expense than the strained attempt to justify those first 70-some-odd minutes, when they killed time interviewing, among others, the star of “Duck Dynasty.”

Entertainment reporter Nischelle Turner sought to provide cover for the network near the outset, saying she had asked Attorney Gen. Eric Holder – in the context of the recent tragic events out of Boston and Texas – “Is it OK for us to laugh?” Who knew Holder’s jurisdiction extended to determining when comedy is considered tasteless or “too soon.”

Hey, laughter is always welcome. The only question for CNN is whether it’s going to be with you, or at you.

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