Much of Washington is ready to party like it’s 2019, before the coronavirus, when the biggest risk at the annual White House press corps gala was more likely to be jokes that ruffled too many political feathers.
After the pandemic nixed the event in 2020 and 2021, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returns Saturday night, with Joe Biden as the first sitting president to attend in six years after Donald Trump shunned it while in office.
Comedy is also back, with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah as headliner. Celebrities are, too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected to turn up, and the Funny or Die comedy studio is co-sponsoring an after-party. The event also draws a large swath of government officials and other prominent figures.
“Seeing the president of the United States come back, and the dinner come back, I think signals more than a pause in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press.” “We’re safe to talk to each other again.
“I think this relationship — even if it’s a one-night thing where witticisms are exchanged, and people make fun of others and each other — it’s a very healthy thing.”
It feels like the return of a modicum of normalcy for the nation’s capital, but it is also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, is skipping the dinner “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.”
That raised questions about whether the 79-year-old Biden should go. The president is going to pass up the meal and turn up later for the program. He plans to be masked when not speaking.
Biden mentioned the dinner during a speech this week about Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying, “I’ve always had respect for the press but I can’t tell you how much respect I have watching them in these zones where they’re under fire.”
“Imagine if we weren’t getting that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s plan to attend “does stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on a nearly daily basis, but also never attended the dinner.” Trump gleefully boycotted the event and at times branded the media “the enemy of the people.”
After the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and of Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19.
The White House is stressing the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce by 90% severe outcomes from the virus among those at highest risk. Still, Psaki has said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it is possible he could test positive for COVID, just like any American.”
That’s because the U.S. is experiencing a COVID case spike from a highly contagious subvariant of omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Though well below the maximum of 800,000-plus cases per day nationwide during the height of the omicron wave earlier this year, current statistics are probably undercounts given the increased availability of at-home COVID-19 tests whose results may not be reported to health authorities.
The White House Correspondents’ Association said it would require same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak. It has since added a vaccination requirement for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity exceeding 2,600 and is fully booked.
Despite the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, virus deaths and hospitalizations are near, or at, pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier virus strains. Just over 300 people are dying in the U.S. each day from the virus, down from more than 2,600 daily earlier this year — with about 1,600 hospitalizations per day, declining from a peak of more than 21,000 daily in January.
The correspondents’ dinner debuted in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend three years later and all have since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend every year of their presidencies, however, and Ronald Reagan, then recovering from a assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment — but called in from Camp David.
“The thing I think this shows is the restoration to the health of the relationship,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But that’s OK.”
After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the event the following year featured historian Ron Chernow. The return of celebrities this time recalls President Barack Obama’s administration, when the likes of George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis attended.
As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedy video with the star of HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which drew big laughs at the correspondents’ dinner. The White House director of speech writing, Vinay Reddy, and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon worked on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, tapping material from a variety of people both inside and outside government.
Psaki already acknowledged trying to lower expectations, saying the speech is “not funny at all. Just kidding.” Presidential attempts at humor can be tricky, though.
At the 2011 dinner, Obama skewered an unamused Trump — in his presence — over Trump’s fictitious claims about the then-president’s birth certificate. Obama concluded by musing about Trump taking his job one day, saying, “He certainly would bring some change to the White House” as banquet hall screens flashed a parody image of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s grand façade fitted with a Trump logo, golden columns, a digital clock and a sign proclaiming “Hotel, Casino, Golf Course, Presidential Suite.”
That turned out to be prophetic, since Trump of course succeeded Obama — though the overhauls he eventually brought to the presidency stopped short of affixing his name to the White House.