Normally I wouldn’t bother writing an article about something like the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, because unless you live here, why would you care?
But the large, indoor event at the Washington Hilton was back for the first time since 2019 on Saturday night, even though members of the administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. And it was on after dozens of people reportedly tested positive after the Gridiron dinner, another Washington-establishment event, earlier this month. Doctor-in-Chief Anthony Fauci even decided he wasn't willing to take the risk of attending. But apparently, the WHCA dinner could not — NOT! — be canceled for a third year in a row.
And so there I was, the day's White House pool reporter, in a packed room of hundreds of unmasked journalists, celebrities, politicians, and President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden. Nearly everyone was boozing it up and taking photos of Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson, acting as if it were a totally normal night. For a city that prides itself on having the most rational and analytical minds in the country, this weekend it suffered a collective case of cognitive dissonance, and you really have to question the wisdom of proceeding with the event.
The program’s moment of lucidity came not from Washington’s own Very Serious People but from the man who was there to make fun of them: Trevor Noah.
“It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event,” joked Noah, who headlined the dinner. “Do you read any of your own newspapers?” The crowd of thousands, seated at table after table packed into a crowded basement ballroom, just chuckled along. Funny! [laugh-sobs]
“You guys spent the last two years telling everyone the importance of wearing masks and avoiding large, indoor gatherings, then the second someone offers you a free dinner, you all turn into Joe Rogan,” Noah said. “Fauci thought it was too dangerous to come tonight. Pete Davidson thinks it’s OK, and we all went with Pete.”
Sure, everyone was tested and vaccinated for the event. And listen, I'm not out to be a killjoy — the evening had its share of touching moments! They introduced a new award honoring Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, the first Black women in the White House press corps. Young, aspiring journalists were awarded scholarships. And at a time when the press gets constantly attacked, it’s nice to see the Fourth Estate actually appreciated during an evening with a president who can take a joke.
But “official Washington,” as it likes to call itself, should have to reckon with the example it set this weekend, at the main event and all the little side parties leading up to it.
If the approach to COVID now is to take calculated risks, the questions this weekend raises are: Could spending a weekend night at a work event really be worth the possibility of getting it? What is the result going to be of images of people who are supposed to be the most trusted names in news at an event that flies in the face of common sense?
During his remarks at the dinner, Biden, who didn’t wear a mask at all for the nearly 90 minutes he sat at the head table, said that the press is a reflection of the country.
“Good journalism holds up a mirror to ourselves, to reflect on the good, the bad, and the true,” he said.
If that’s the case, based on this weekend’s showing, it’s not shocking that so much of the country thinks it's cool to have gone back to living their lives entirely normally. Here’s hoping, truly and genuinely, that the WHCA dinner 2022 wasn’t a superspreader.