Washington Stages Its Own 1970s Disaster Movie

“I feel deeply ashamed,” my friend said. The hallway was narrow. The ceiling was low. The line was meandering toward the door to the ballroom, carrying 2,600 revelers and an unknown number of viral spores into a windowless space crammed with tables and chairs and, eventually, the president of the United States.

We were all, per the rules, multiply vaxxed and freshly tested. We’d been obliged to upload the test results and the vaccine cards on to an app, which would then generate an entry pass to be presented at the door. But some people were having trouble with the app, which led to bottlenecks in the line. The milling in close quarters, even with the precautions, stirred a familiar Covid-era unease. And my friend’s shame.

It felt, come to think of it, like the opening of a 1970s disaster movie — the ball-gowned, tuxedo-clad swells ignoring the ominous stats, heedless of the recent history that gets dispensed with before the opening credits: A superspreader event at the Gridiron dinner. The vice president, stricken with the virus. Even Anthony Fauci dropped out. Yet here we were, reviving an old ritual that had recently lain dormant. Until tonight. We deserved our fate.

And a lot of the crowd, I suspect, thought it was worth it.

The annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner is one of the great spectacles of the capital’s culture. But despite the C-SPAN broadcast, it’s more like community pageantry than a real stage show, which means a review of the evening needs to include the audience as much as the official performers. On this night, the state of that audience was, ultimately, a bit like the state of our union in this year of incomplete recovery and complete frustration: one part gallows-humor fatalism, one part determination to proceed, one part thrill at getting to be in the company of so many fellow human beings again.

Before dinner, there were jokes about clothes that stopped fitting during the pandemic. People copped to being rusty — so many months without the kind of small talk you make while peering over your interlocutor’s shoulder to watch Glenn Youngkin bro-hug Steve Case. But in Washington, working a room is a widely held skill, and it turns out to be a bit like riding a bike. It didn’t take long for the muscle memory to kick in. There were several announcements before dinner urging everyone to take their seats so that the program could begin.

I suspect the two-year Covid-induced WHCA drought also made the audience easier to please. One of the dreariest aspects of official Washington banqueting is the ostentatiously smarmy displays of troop-respecting. Do we really need an honor guard and a national anthem rendition for a dinner? But this year, in a divided country, a bit of saccharine patriotism felt quite refreshing. I heard a few people singing along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, alas, I thought of Covid again.

And while the traditional cringey celebrity guests were either relatively dated (Drew Barrymore, Harry Hamlin) or just baffling (Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson!) cell phone pictures and selfies were still being snapped. When was the last time you saw a celeb?

But even if it was a crowd predisposed to cheer, the show was actually pretty good! The yuks portion of the night got rolling with a video montage of James Corden trying to do the job of White House spokesperson and Billy Eichner giving awards to entertainment journalists.

Then President Joe Biden took the stage, working with pretty good material. Naturally there were zingers about Fox (he noted that everyone in the room had to show their vaccination status, meaning Sean Hannity and the various other network notables in attendance were vax icons) and Donald Trump (“We had a horrible plague followed by two years of Covid”). Biden did manage, alas, to step on his best joke (it was supposed to be about how it would have been a “real coup” if the WHCA had managed to engage Trump as a speaker). And the only groaners were the self-deprecating ones: Biden needs to find something other than his age and his low approval numbers to riff on.

Still, the way to win over a room full of journalists isn’t by sticking with good topical humor. We’re a sentimental tribe, and, as such, are going to respond well when Biden breaks out his twinkly Irish incarnation and whispers and goes purple about the hallowed nature of reporting. A free press “is not the enemy of the people” he said. “I mean this in the bottom of my heart, that you — the free press — matter more than you ever did in the last century.”

Unlike the presidential speech, the professional comedian portion of the dinner has a fraught history. Over the years, there’s been pearl-clutching about routines that were allegedly too cutting (Stephen Colbert with George W. Bush, Wanda Sykes with Barack Obama), which usually leads to an overcorrection the following year: The gentle celebrity-impression guy Rich Little was booked the year after Colbert skewered Bush. The last pre-Covid dinner was the apotheosis of this tendency: The association got rid of the comedian following a backlash over Michelle Wolf’s swipes at Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, opting to have biographer Ron Chernow give historical remarks instead. With comedy back on the menu in 2022, where along this spectrum would Trevor Noah land?

As it turned out, he landed in a good spot. Noah is not a comedian who mines laughs out of uncomfortable situations — the sort of stuff that usually causes trouble for comedians sharing a stage with politicians. Instead, he’s able to be a zinger guy, which is more or less the game he brought. On stage, he took some shots at Biden, who appeared to have practiced his laughing-at-myself face, tossing his head back and grinning. But there were also shots at Trump, Ron DeSantis and Kyrsten Sinema, among other political figures. And smartly, most of the shots were at the one thing most reporters like discussing more than politics: ourselves. Among other media targets, there were gibes about Fox and MSNBC, copious laughs at the expense of CNN, and a kidney punch of a bit about Chuck Todd not knowing how to ask follow-up questions. He knew the audience well: The list of name checks included such unlikely figures as Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, the kind of reference that may not play so well outside the confines of the Washington Hilton.

Noah, too, knew that you gotta bring the riff home by going noble about the mission of journalism, closing with a keep-it-real paean to the Fourth Estate. It killed. For at least a minute. And then, even before the schmoozing president left the dais, people were up from their tables and working the room. It was time to figure out which after-party to hit. It may have been, as Noah said, “the nation’s most distinguished superspreader event,” but any positive tests wouldn’t start rolling in for 48 hours.

The disaster movie sequence could wait a bit.