One of Michelle Wolf’s first jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner involved a certain vulgarity that rode into widespread public use aboard Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” bus. To this crowd, it was apparently still a bit shocking. “You should have done more research before you got me to do this,” she said.
It was funny because it was true. The association invited Ms. Wolf, a political comedian, to its annual shindig Saturday night. She performed a political comedy routine. It was scathing, confrontational and impolite.
It was, in other words, about what you’d expect from a correspondent who once called President Trump “a racist fake gynecologist” on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” an American news-comedy program that I suspect even the busy members of the W.H.C.A. have caught once or twice.
Ms. Wolf did her job, and did it brutally well. It’s the correspondents’ dinner, the past weekend’s fiasco shows, that seems not to know what its purpose is.
By Sunday, with allies of the administration and Washington journalists alike denouncing the routine, the group issued its regrets. “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people,” the group’s president, Margaret Talev, wrote. “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, seized on the association’s backtracking, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” That might be fine with Mr. Trump, who was roasted for his bogus birtherism claims by Seth Meyers and President Obama in 2011, as he sat rigid in the audience, turning into a tomato.
Was Ms. Wolf’s set vicious? Absolutely. (She called Ivanka Trump, for instance, “about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.”)
But was it gratuitous? Not at all. It drove mercilessly toward its themes: that this administration lies; that its female members are covering for a sexist president; and that journalists have enabled it all with breathless coverage.
Those are points of view, and not ones that anyone needs to agree with. But comedy’s job is to have a point of view, to pick a hill to die on and defend it with furiously thrown pies. Comedy is not a Page A1 news analysis. It is not its job to call the other side for comment or throw in a “to be sure” paragraph for balance.
Ms. Wolf’s most controversial jokes were about the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, partly because she made them to her face. Ms. Sanders was on the dais in place of Mr. Trump, who counterprogrammed the dinner with a campaign rally in Michigan.
The jokes were personal, yes, because character is personal.
Comparing Ms. Sanders to Aunt Lydia, the rigid enforcer for a misogynist state on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” jabs at Ms. Sanders’s role, not her looks. (The regal Ann Dowd, one of TV’s best character actresses, deserves better than that assumption.) Likewise her dig that Ms. Sanders “burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smokey eye” (unless “perfect” is now an insult). And likening her to a gym coach browbeating White House reporters was, like Melissa McCarthy’s imitation of Sean Spicer, a sendup of a public figure’s public performance.
Ms. Sanders, after all, is an adult woman who freely chose the job of spokeswoman for the president. That job once involved defending Mr. Trump’s tweet that claimed the “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski came to see him “bleeding badly from a face-lift.” The president, Ms. Sanders said, “fights fire with fire.” (Ms. Brzezinski nonetheless tweeted in Ms. Sanders’s support.)
If only Ms. Wolf had a Sarah Huckabee Sanders of her own. Instead she has the W.H.C.A., a group whose essential work is undermined by its highest-profile event, which is perennially trapped between provocation and caution, between the thirst to be edgy and the need to be liked.
The dinner — carried, probably unwisely, on live TV — is a multicourse tasting menu of mixed messages. It argues passionately for reporting without fear or favor, but shows reporters hobnobbing with their subjects like “Great Gatsby” extras. (The Times has not attended in a decade.)
It takes some doing to emerge from one event painted as simultaneously partisan and toothless, elitist and crude, adversarial and complicit. But the dinner somehow pulls it off.
Meanwhile, the monologues have become bigger than the night around them, creating a tension between the room and the home audience. In 2006, Stephen Colbert gave a brutal one in front of George W. Bush that guests also panned as harsh and disrespectful. It’s now part of his standard bio-hagiography.
For the journalists, the upside is less clear. The association isn’t obligated to hire a comedian at all. I’m sure the greater D.C. area does not lack for magicians and fire dancers. Send the cameras away. Have a nice dinner in peace.
But to hire a comic, then renounce her for doing what she does, is weak. Any reporter knows that if you don’t do your homework, the consequences are on you. And to cave under pressure undermines reporters’ work by suggesting, rightly or not, that the Washington press corps can be cowed by the play-for-keeps tactics of this administration.
As for political balance, it should be noted that the W.H.C.A. invited America’s premiere conservative insult comic, and he chose to do a rally in Michigan instead. Mr. Trump knows the political value of a Don Rickles zinger. He intuits that audiences grant comedians a leeway they don’t to the stuffier professions.
Comedians are powerful — and sometimes more trusted and respected than journalists, as “The Daily Show” and company have shown — because they can say uncomfortable things flat-out, ditch the euphemisms, call a “falsehood” a lie. Comedy isn’t reporting, but it is testimony. (Ms. Wolf ended her own routine with a straight line: “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”)
The irony of the association’s disavowing Ms. Wolf is that her routine, whether you agree with it or not, was ultimately about defending the mission of the White House press: sticking up for the truth. Michelle Wolf had the W.H.C.A.’s back Saturday night, even if it didn’t have hers the day after.
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