WASHINGTON — President Trump may have succeeded in drawing attention to a rally on the same night as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but the annual Beltway event went on as if it didn’t matter that the administration was boycotting it.
At the Washington Hilton, there were few celebrities, not even that many elected officials and this year, there wasn’t even a comedian. But the event still sold out, a tight fit in the oval-shaped ballroom.
Instead, the host was historian Ron Chernow, the author of “Alexander Hamilton,” on which the Broadway sensation was based. His 30-minute keynote was humorous, insightful and even inspirational, drawing two standing ovations as he put in historical context the Trump presidency and what he called “this surreal interlude in American life.”
Quoting Will Rogers, Chernow said, “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
Last year’s featured entertainer, Michelle Wolf, proved to be too much for a number of journalists and D.C. politicos, as she directed her provocative humor at some of those who were in attendance, including White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Chernow may not have been as biting as Wolf, but he still was critical of Trump, particularly for his attacks on the media and for contributing to a “rising tide of misinformation” that “threatens to make a mockery of the First Amendment.”
His quips weren’t caustic, but clever and a bit biting.
“Now as best as I can tell, Washington committed only one major blunder as president: He failed to put his name on Mount Rushmore and thereby bungled an early opportunity at branding,” he quipped. It was a reference to a Politico story about Trump’s remarks that Washington should have named his home after himself.
After a few self-deprecating remarks, Chernow told the story of a Norwegian tale called “Enemy of the People” — a not-so-subtle jab at Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric — in which a man is punished by his village for speaking an unpalatable truth, and likened the character’s plight to those of journalists.
“Campaigns against the press do not get your face carved on Mount Rushmore,” Chernow said. “But when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy.”
Chernow stressed that Trump wasn’t the first American president (“and won’t be the last”) to have “jitters” about the media, before noting this country’s “best presidents” who have handled the press with “wit, grace, charm and humor.”
The historian’s speech, which championed a free press and more unified nation, quoted everyone from James Madison to Martin Luther King to Mark Twain.
“Whether Democrats or Republicans, we are all members of bonafide USA and not members of enemy camps,” he said.
As unprecedented as Trump’s attacks on the media have been, Chernow also cautioned that the role of the press should not be different than it has been for Trump’s predecessors. In other words, the news media is not the opposition party, but there to report the facts and the truth, and perhaps a history lesson is a bit more fitting for the times than a standup comedy act. He told the press to “be humble, be skeptical, and beware of being infected by the very things that you are fighting against.”
Some Hollywood figures did make the event, like James L. Brooks and “House of Cards” star Michael Kelly. So did Rob Goldstone, the music publicist who arranged the Trump Tower meeting, the subject of a significant chunk of the Mueller report.
And despite the Trump administration’s boycott of the dinner, some Trump associates did attend other events. Conway and Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, were at the annual Garden Brunch on Saturday, a mix of media celebrities, lawmakers and business executives, and one Democratic presidential candidate, former Rep. John Delaney, who launched his campaign in 2017. Also at the event, held at the Beall-Washington House in Georgetown, was Rod Rosenstein, the soon-to-depart deputy attorney general.
For a few moments Rosenstein chatted with Jay Leno, who was there to help honor military veterans. Leno presented an award to Master Sgt. Angela Morales-Biggs.
Leno, too, noted the talk that this year was “painfully slow on celebrities. Pretty much reached the bottom of the barrel here. ‘Well, let’s get Leno. He’ll come in!'”
Gary Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser, was among those at the NBC News-MSNBC After Party on Saturday at the Italian Embassy, along with Boris Epshteyn, chief political correspondent at Sinclair Broadcast Group, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and Jason Miller, spokesman for the Trump campaign and the transition. Also present were Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser; Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.); along with news personalities and executives Andy Lack, David L. Cohen, Phil Griffin and Noah Oppenheim.
On Friday night, UTA and Mediate hosted an event that drew many of the agency’s news clients, as well as former Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jordan Klepper and Minnie Driver. The TV show “Extra” was covering the event, but its special correspondent was Spicer, and he interviewed such figures as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for several minutes. If this year didn’t have quite the glitz and glam of years past, they’ll make do.
CAA hosted a party on Friday at Eaton DC, a new Washington hotel, gathering spot and workspace, that drew a number of news personalities such as Andrea Mitchell, Phil Mattingly, Cecilia Vega and Kate Bolduan.
CBS News and Politico hosted a reception at the Hilton with guests including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Rick Santorum, anchor Jeff Glor and “Face the Nation” anchor Margaret Brennan. Also present was a 2020 Republican presidential rival to Trump, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, and a potential GOP contender, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), at The Washington Post reception, said that although many elected officials did not trek back to D.C. for the dinner given the recess, his district is just about an hour’s drive away.