The celebrity-laden dinner of more than 2,500 journalists and guests that you can watch on television this Saturday night (April 28) is a far cry from the association’s first small, private dinner in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend the dinner in 1924. In the 1940s, top entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Danny Thomas were added. Women were barred until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy said he wouldn’t attend unless females were included. JFK began the tradition of presidents giving humorous speeches.
President Richard Nixon also wasn’t a fan of the press. Nixon reluctantly attended the 1971 dinner, but arrived after awards had been presented to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their coverage of the Watergate scandal. Nixon complained later that despite being “a good sport,” at his next news conference reporters were “more vicious than usual. This bears out my theory that treating them with considerably more contempt is in the long run a more productive policy.”
In the Nixon years, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, where I was a young reporter, hosted a popular after-dinner party. At one crowded party I was talking to my guest Ralph Nader when I bumped into somebody behind me. It was Henry Kissinger, who was with TV newswoman Barbara Walters. I introduced Kissinger to Nader. “Everybody I try to hire,” Kissinger told Nader, “wants to work for you.”
TV comedy star Danny Thomas returned as the entertainer in 1975. Thomas dusted off his 1940s comic routine of demeaning wife and mother-in-law jokes. Women in the audience began hissing. Thomas didn’t know what hit him. He was consoled by his actress daughter, Marlo Thomas, who was at the dinner with — who else? — Henry Kissinger.
Even though President Reagan missed the 1981 dinner while recovering from an assassination attempt, the old movie star upstaged comedian Mark Russell by phoning in his remarks. Reagan told the incoming association president, “If I could give you just one little bit of advice, when somebody tells you to duck, do it.”
The rush to include celebrities began in the Reagan years when a reporter invited Fawn Hall, who had gained notoriety as the young secretary for national security adviser Oliver North during the Iran Contra scandal. Soon, media outlets were inviting so many movie and TV stars that the dinner became more like Hollywood on the Potomac.
At President George W. Bush’s first dinner in 2001, I invited a media celebrity as my guest: Art Buchwald, the veteran humor columnist. Buchwald was in poor health but still flirted with one female Journal reporter. She let him down gently, telling him, “My mother is a big fan of yours, Mr. Buchwald.”
At the 2011 dinner, President Barack Obama ridiculed Donald Trump, who had led false claims that Obama was born in Kenya. The mocking clearly angered Trump, who was in the audience. Some speculate that’s when he decided to run for president.
President Trump’s absence for the second straight year is an opening to counter his fake charges about fake news by focusing on the journalists who are carrying out the original goal of the White House Correspondents’ Association: “Vigorous reporting on the presidency.”
Shafer lives in James City County and is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.