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A power dinner worth remembering


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, May 3, 2012 10:34
Tags : White House Correspondents' Dinner | White House Correspondents’ Association |

Annual White House DinnerThe evening of April 30 in Washington DC was marked by an annual event that does not have many followers outside the US. The White House Correspondents' Dinner this year had host Jimmy Kimmel picking up on key administration and opposition figures. And in between, he also revisited last year’s dinner, which took place as Navy SEALS were dispatched to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. The joke of the evening was, while Obama sat as unworried as he normally does, has he sent another team to knock someone down?

Historically, this dinner has been hosted by White House Correspondents’ Association on the last Saturday of April every year, since 1920. Over the year, it has changed a lot in its texture and appearance. In its previous versions, there normally used to be performances between the courses and often an in-house video picking on either President or his Veep or some administrative figure used to be played at the end. The crowd used to be exclusively from the media community, obviously all the correspondents covering White House beat as the name suggests, as well as key administrative and opposition figures. It has historically been attended by the Presidents and their Veeps but the invitations always come from the incumbent Press Secretary. Including Barack Obama, as many as 14 Presidents have attended these dinners.

However, sometime during Ronald Reagan days, as with everything else, the dinner saw the first set of changes. Performances gave way to stand-up comedy acts while the attendance swelled as lobbyists and corporation guys started joining the ranks. Separate exclusive tables for media houses made entry and the dinner became more informal. One can not help but remember Don Imus' rip-apart act in mid 80s that did not apparently go down well with the then administration which was clearly caught unaware about the new format. But after that, the dinner started changing comprehensibly, and fast.  

Celebrities of all sizes, shapes and stripes started attending; almost always on the invitation of media houses and rarely by the Press Secretary. Somewhere in 90s too, unfortunately, on more than one occasion, the dinner fall immediately after some national tragedies. Sometimes on the very day itself. However, the dinner was never canceled or rescheduled because of that. Since 90s, incidents such as the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), the Siege at Waco, Texas (1993), the Columbine shooting (1999), and the Virginia Tech Massacre (2007) took place immediately before the dinner but it seldom affected the spirit of the night.

The comedy acts down the years have varied from acerbic to rip-apart to bland depending on who was hosting it. Historically, Presidents too address the gathering and crack a few wise ones, often lampooning themselves too, before the dais is left open for the host of the evening. Some presidents  have been really sporty in taking lampoons. Some even went out of the way to shoot videos lampooning themselves. One can not forget the video President Clinton shot spoofing himself as a loner, technologically-handicapped outgoing president who was ridden in debt of the law firm representing him for cases pertaining from you know what.

But at times, the evening does not proceed as planned. One can not help but remember the act by American liberal satirist Stephen Colbert in the 2006 edition of the dinner. Colbert used to host a program on Comedy Central where he used to act as a faux conservative host. President Bush, who is not particularly known for his IQ, actually believed Colbert was a conservative and agreed for his  act. But when Colbert went live, he just roasted Bush and his administration alive with his scathing jokes delivered in his characteristic satirical delivery style. Colbert was also critical of White House correspondents whom he spoofed as somebody afraid of asking question or questioning government's version of incidents. It was pretty late when President Bush realized what happened and then nothing could have been done. 

But after that night, people became cautious and harmless names like Jey Leno, Rich Little, Craig Ferguson and Seth Meyers were asked to host it in subsequent outings. This year's dinner was marked as the funniest in many years as both President Obama and host Jimmy Kimmel picked on administration and opposition figures. Obama was superb on Mitt Romney on whom he said, “We both think of our wives as our better halves, and the American people agree to an insulting extent.” Or “We both have degrees from Harvard. I have one, he has two. What a snob.” Apparently in reference to a comment by Rick Santorum where he suggested that Obama was a “snob” as he wanted every American to attend college. Santorum, who was in the audience, gave a thumbs-up. 

But even president was no match to Kimmel's performance. Kimmel, in his characteristic docile face asked Obama: “You remember when the country rallied around you in hopes of a better tomorrow? That was hilarious.”  

However, over the year, criticisms too are mounting. The inclusion of celebrities is being frowned upon. Some correspondents have gone as far as calling it as a replica of Golden Globe Awards. A few others have criticized the chumminess between White House and the press corp. After the 2007 dinner, New York Times columnist Frank Rich swore that the event was “a crystallization of the press's failures in the post-9/11 era” as it “illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows.”

But criticism apart, the show has run for so many years now that it has turned into a tradition no one wants to discontinue. It also, in more ways than one, humanizes the administration figures by giving them a chance to act differently than the cardboard cut-outs they appear to be in daily life.  And where else will you hear President Obama picking on the Republican congressional leadership, whom he thanked “for taking time from their exhausting schedule of not passing any laws” to attend the dinner.     

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the blog are that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Sunday Indian)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017