After last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which Michelle Wolf drew fire for correctly noting that press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied to the press, the White House Correspondents’ Association decided to hire a historian instead of a comedian. Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, got tapped primarily to provide less controversy, as he acknowledged:
I confess that I was surprised when I got the invitation to speak here tonight. I mean, I knew they weren’t approaching me as an international sex symbol, right? Then Olivier told me that they wanted to try “boring” at this year’s dinner, and I said, “Oh, I can deliver on that big time. Now you’re talking my language.”
For the most part, Chernow succeeded. Here’s his full speech:
Since Stephen Colbert’s legendary 2006 WHCD appearance in 2006, the WHCD has occasionally been a venue where people spoke frankly about the government—and world—we’ve built. Chernow’s speech, although it included a few quips about Donald Trump’s intelligence, seemed like it was written on another planet, someplace where authoritarianism could be effectively fought with civility:
Even though it may seem wistful and naïve and a touch quixotic, I would like to keep alive tonight the fading memory of more civilized dealings between chief executives and the news media. Call it a museum of presidential decorum. At this confrontational moment in American politics, we must recall that civility has been an essential lubricant in our democratic culture and that our best presidents have handled the press with wit, grace, charm, candor, and even humor.
Chernow is exactly right: That does seem wistful and naïve and a touch quixotic. It doesn’t matter how plush the velvet glove on the iron fist is, and there is no amount of wit, grace, charm, or humor that would make the resurgence of authoritarianism and white supremacy in the United States any better for anyone. Still, candor does matter, and it is true that Donald Trump is a different sort of president. Chernow made this point by tracing the history of presidential relationships with the press, sharing stories about both Roosevelts, Kennedy, and, of all people, Ronald Reagan:
Now, Ronald Reagan was a no less sunny personality and a past master, of course, of media relations. When he became president, he said, “I think that most of the time, the overwhelming majority of reporters do a fine job, and as a former reporter, I know just how tough their job can be.” Nevertheless, Reagan had a sometimes bumpy relationship with the press. Then on March 30, 1981, he was shot and nearly killed outside this very hotel, the Washington Hilton, as he was about to duck into his limousine. A bullet lodged within an inch of his heart. Reagan was scheduled to speak at, yes, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And so he telephoned in this line instead. “If I could give you just one little bit of advice: When somebody tells you to get into a car quick, do it.” That was a touch of class that has been sorely missing in our political culture in recent years. It was a subtle reminder that whether Republicans or Democrats, we are all bona fide members of Team U.S.A., and not members of enemy camps.
With all due respect to Chernow, what the government of the United States is missing today is not “a touch of class,” or a phone call from the president to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and Ronald Reagan’s lawless, inhuman presidency should be a model to no one. It’s pointless to decide who is a bona fide member of “Team U.S.A.” when the planet is boiling and white supremacists are shooting up synagogues, but pretending that the politicians responsible are not “members of enemy camps” to all humanity is voting for table manners over the survival of the species. But Chernow did point to journalists who spoke frankly about how power and money work, including Ida B. Wells, Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair, all of whom are well worth reading and contrasting with Chernow’s palpable wish for a more civilized era. There’s nothing civil about any of this. There never has been.