Funny Speech, Dismal Dinner

By Dan Froomkin
11:23 AM ET, 05/11/2009

President Obama's speech to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night was full of delightfully deflating zingers in which Obama gently mocked his reputation, his top aides -- and his political opponents. Here's the full text.

When he got around to talking "about the men and women in this room whose job it is to inform the public and pursue the truth," however, the ribbing pretty much stopped -- replaced by something more like pity. Obama expressed his sympathies about the media industry's struggles to find its way in a new world, and spoke passionately about its essential role to society.

"[W]hen you are at your best, then you help me be at my best," he said. "You help all of us who serve at the pleasure of the American people do our jobs better by holding us accountable, by demanding honesty, by preventing us from taking shortcuts and falling into easy political games that people are so desperately weary of.

"And that kind of reporting is worth preserving -- not just for your sake, but for the public's. We count on you to help us make sense of a complex world and tell the stories of our lives the way they happen, and we look for you for truth -- even if it's always an approximation."

But with his remarks about the media, Obama (unintentionally or not) highlighted the evening's fundamental and deeply disturbing disconnect. Because the correspondents dinner isn't about journalism, or its uncertain future, or the importance of holding the government accountable. It's about a bunch of media elites partying and clowning around with a bunch of Hollywood celebrities.

It is, as I wrote on NiemanWatchdog on Friday, an orgy of self-congratulation. And, particularly since 2006, when Stephen Colbert left the audience dazed and uncomprehending with his brutal critique of both George W. Bush and the press corps that failed to expose him for what he was, it's become widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the dangerous coziness between Washington’s journalistic elites and the people they cover.

And I had to wonder if there wasn't more than a little truth to one of Obama's first jokes of the night. "I have to confess I really did not want to be here tonight," he said, "but I knew I had to come -- just one more problem that I've inherited from George W. Bush."

Because here's the question: What was the president doing there, really?

Before I get everyone too morose, however, let's go back for a moment to the president's speech. Because there were some very funny lines -- some of which even cracked Obama up himself. He seemed particularly pleased with himself over the jokes that came at the expense of his top aides. For instance, he took a dig at his notoriously foul-mouthed chief of staff by saying about Mother's Day "that this is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he's not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'" Obama chuckled to himself. "That's true."

He mocked chief economic adviser Larry Summers's penchant for falling asleep at meetings: "And I do appreciate that Larry is here tonight because it is seven hours past his bedtime." And he made a little fun of his hapless treasury secretary, promising to "housetrain our dog, Bo, because the last thing Tim Geithner needs is someone else treating him like a fire hydrant."

Obama also seemed very pleased with his mockery of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele's attempts to give the GOP a hip-hop makeover. "Michael Steele is in the house tonight," Obama said. "Or as he would say, 'in the heezy.'" Then, making like a rapper, Obama exclaimed: "Whassup?" Big smile.

Later, it was John A. Boehner's turn, with Obama saying he and the perpetually overtanned House Republican leader "have a lot in common. He is a person of color. Although not a color that appears in the natural world. Wassup, John?"

Obama poked fun of his own reputation as a media darling. "All of you voted for me," he said -- before adding: "Apologies to the Fox table." And he joked about his own arrogance: "During the second hundred days, we will design, build and open a library dedicated to my first hundred days," he said. "It's going to be big, folks...I believe that my next hundred days will be so successful I will be able to complete them in 72 days."

Obama seemed to be having a good time. But I wonder if at some point he and his White House aides are going to start seeing the correspondents dinner as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

After all, actual White House correspondents make up a tiny fraction of the 2,500-plus people attending the festivities. Going back to Obama's point about the essential role played by the media, the heroes of the night were not those journalists who had achieved great heights in accountability reporting. On the media side, the big stars were the people who are on TV -- most of them glib repeaters of talking points, the play-by-play announcers of the perpetual Washington game of political one-upsmanship. And even they were eclipsed by the likes of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Natalie Portman and the cast of "Gossip Girl," whose relevance to White House journalism is nil.

In that NiemanWatchdog essay referenced above, I outline a few steps the White House Correspondents' Association could take to redeem the dinner. That includes reforming ticket distribution in favor of less high-profile news organizations that will take advantage of the opportunity to develop sources, and discouraging organizations from bringing guests who don’t contribute to the journalistic mission of the event.

Sitting there on Saturday night, I had a few more thoughts. What if the association took advantage of the evening to issue specific calls for greater transparency from the White House? What if it prominently featured and celebrated the best in White House accountability journalism -- while at the same time acknowledging the year's failures?

We could still have a great party. Just not a delusional one.

There's no shortage of further coverage of the dinner, and the weekend. From the Washington Post alone, here are Richard Leiby, Chris Cillizza, Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger, Mary Ann Akers and Liz Kelly. Washington media doyenne Tammy Haddad aggregates everything party-related on her Web site.

And Obama wasn't the only headliner, of course. Comedian Wanda Sykes gently ribbed the president -- and saved her most vicious zingers for Rush Limbaugh, who was safely out of the room.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company