‘American democracy is not a reality show’: Biden roasts, and reflects, at WHCD
President Joe Biden used Saturday night’s return of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to reaffirm the role of the free press — a stark contrast to his predecessor’s toxic relationship with the media and refusal to attend the event during his four years in office.
“The free press is not the enemy of the people, far from it,” Biden said, in a nod to one of former President Donald Trump’s favorite media attack lines. “The truth matters. American democracy is not a reality show. It’s not a reality show. It’s reality itself.”
Biden was the first president to address the annual Washington gathering in six years — after two years of pandemic hiatus and four years without an appearance by Trump — and delivered the traditional self-deprecating humor, jokes about the press, and jabs at the opposing party and his predecessor.
“I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have,” Biden said.
“This is the first time a president attended in six years — it’s understandable — we had a horrible plague followed by two years of Covid,” Biden said, drawing an audible response from the crowd. “Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year — now that would really have been a real coup.”
The president then quipped that roasting the GOP wasn’t his style.
“Besides, there’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape,” the president said.
Though the White House — and Washington — is looking to move past the pandemic, Covid’s presence was felt during Saturday’s event. Negative Covid tests and proof of vaccination were required for entry, and guests stood in longer-than-usual lines to show the documentation.
Biden used the vaccination requirement to take a jab at some Fox News hosts’ anti-vaccine rhetoric.
“Everyone had to prove they’re fully vaccinated and boosted. So if you’re at home watching this and you’re wondering how to do that, just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here — vaccinated and boosted, all of them,” Biden said.
But amid the jokes, the president often struck a serious tone, with Russia’s war on Ukraine hanging over the event. Speakers, including Biden, memorialized fallen journalists who have died in crossfire.
Biden said the U.S. has seen the “courage of the Ukrainian people because of the courage of American reporters” on the ground, shedding light on the atrocities unfolding at the hands of the Russian military. He thanked reporters for covering Russia’s attacks, the deadly pandemic, America’s racial reckoning and climate change’s existential threat to the country.
The awards and speeches portion of the event kicked off with a pre-taped skit with talk show host James Corden in the White House press briefing room before WHCA president Steven Portnoy took the stage to welcome guests.
“We are grateful for the vaccines, the therapies, the tests that make it possible for us to be here together tonight,” Portnoy said during the opening remarks. “We are pleased to have the president in attendance here with us.”
Portnoy then asked the guests at table 82 to identify themselves. That was the table Biden sat at when he first attended the dinner in 1974 — as a guest of the Philadelphia Bulletin evening newspaper.
The cavernous ballroom was packed with about 2,600 people, with only a handful wearing masks. Biden and first lady Jill Biden did not attend the dinner portion of the event and arrived just before the awards and speeches kicked off, sitting at the dinner’s signature dais — both without masks.
The large gathering was held amid fears that it could spur another Covid outbreak after dozens of attendees — from members of the media to some of Biden’s cabinet officials — tested positive after the Gridiron dinner a few weeks ago. Saturday’s attendees by and large reported they enjoyed getting out and about for their first Washington banquet since before Covid struck the U.S.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who tested positive for Covid this week, was not in attendance. Anthony Fauci also pulled out of the event last week due to concerns over the virus.
Celebrity attendees included comedian Ziwe Fumudoh, Martha Stewart, Drew Barrymore, Brooke Shields, reality star Kim Kardashian and comedian Pete Davidson. Media bold-faced names included CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid and CBS’ Gayle King. Others spotted at Saturday’s event included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Meghan McCain and Al Sharpton.
“The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah took the stage after Biden to deliver the traditional roast by a comedian.
“It is my great honor to be speaking tonight at the nation’s most distinguished super-spreader event,” Noah said in his inimitable style. “Did none of you learn anything from the Gridiron Dinner? … The second someone offers you a free dinner you all turn into Joe Rogan.”
Eugene Daniels and Sudeep Reddy contributed to this report.