10 Key Moments in the Evolution of the White House Correspondents Dinner

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Every year, we hear about the White House Correspondents Dinner and what politically incorrect comedian made headlines, not to mention what celebrities attended and what press-worthy soundbites were uttered. It’s exhausting to read, although probably not as exhausting as having to sit on the front row of the event, laughing hard at every single joke Mister President sadly botches.

Still, it does seem as if people only know the most-covered WHCD stories, and not any of the real dirt—you know, the so-outrageous-it-has-to-be-true stories that history would rather not remember. So let’s dig up some of these buried fascinating tales and share some gossip as juicy as the White House Correspondents Dinner’s main entrée (Which had damn well better be juicy if you’re serving the President!)

10. The Big Presidential Dinner Was Once a Small and D-List Event

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When the White House Correspondents’ Association was first founded in 1914, the motive was merely for an organization of journalists to come together and present itself professionally to the President of the United States for public relations. The rumor floating around that a Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents would choose the reporters allowed inside prompted the creation of the organization.

The Dinner was a courtesy started in 1920 and became a tradition onward, culminating in the first-ever presidential appearance at one of these conferences, by Calvin Coolidge. The first official dinner was also the first time this public relations event got the media attention it deserved, with early video cameras shooting the arrival of prominent political figures of the day, including Silent Cal himself and then-Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft. For the first event, only 50 people attended and it was held at the Old Arlington Hotel—which we assume was like the Studio 54 of the 1920’s, complete with top-hats.

9. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Was the First President to Make it a “Partay”

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There had been many dinners before Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in all his four-term glory, but none before had been so celebrity-oriented. In the year 1944, the Correspondents Dinner received major press for being the first dinner to include celebrities of radio, camera, and stage, such as Bob Hope, Gracie Fields, Pedro Bargas, along with Dr. Frank Black and a 40-piece orchestra. Bob Hope was nervous about the event, but figured telling a few jokes with a measure of respect for the office was the best way to go.

The extravagance of the affair prompted guest Paul Wooton of the New Orleans Times Picayune to exclaim (in that reserved, 1940’s sort of way) “I don’t think just that sort of show ever was put on before.” Indeed, the dinner had become a show, and judging from the headline quite a surreal scene, since the article suggested High Ranking World Leaders “ate un-rationed duck and traded off-the-record political wisecracks.” At least the guests were highly sophisticated … but not for long.

8. John F. Kennedy Was the First President to Invite Women to the Party

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Lead it to a ladies’ man like John F. Kennedy to be kind to women at dinner. Before 1962, meaning decades since the event’s inception, women were still barred from the White House Correspondents Dinner for no good reason except that it was a famous boy’s club. The idea to bring women into the mix wasn’t Kennedy’s, but rather the head of female reporter Helen Thomas, who publicly protested the exclusion of the so-called “fairer sex” from such an important live event.

She pressured Kennedy to make history by boycotting the dinner unless women were invited too. Kennedy agreed, and history was made. The persistent and fearless Thomas even became president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 1975, putting a nail in the coffin of political sexism … although we’re still waiting on the whole first Female President thing.

And before you disrespect the dead, suggesting that Kennedy’s behavior was anything but political and anti-sexist … well, it’s true that Helen Thomas and John F. Kennedy did once date. But she found him “too fresh” for her, which proves once and for all it was about more than just being a presidential flirt.

7. Gerald Ford Challenged Chevy Chase to a Slapstick Duel

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Gerald Ford showed his own talents for roasting himself and for dueling notorious presidential mocker Chevy Chase. He did so by doing, well, a silly Gerald Ford impersonation. This time Gerald got the biggest laugh of the night when he intentionally tripped when going up to the platform and sent dishes and silverware all over Chevy Chase’s lap—a classic Chevy Chase bit but delivered by the President! He followed up his slapstick routine with a reversal of Chevy’s tagline: “I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not.”

While it is customary for presidents today to perform comedy skits (Well, the Democratic ones, anyway) for the audience, most of the comedy is political, very safe, and always obsequious of the president himself. Ford was perhaps the only President in history who had the good comedy sense to laugh at himself first and do a bit of self-deprecating humor long before the press deemed it fashionable.

6. 1978, the Year the President Had Better Things to Do

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One guy without such sense was President Jimmy Carter. While Clinton and Obama certainly aren’t above flexing their comedic muscles when the opportunity comes, Carter proved that not all Democrats feel this way.

Communications Director Gerald Rafshoon, who assisted Jimmy Carter, said the president “didn’t like to go to these White House Correspondents Dinners” and that they actually had to fight to make him do them. Carter was good at it, but said a mouthful when he confessed “Yes, but there are more important things to do.” Carter made his point clear to the point of awkwardness when he and the First Lady both declined to appear at the 1978 Dinner. And let’s face it, if the president stands you up on a dinner date, he’s just not that into you.

5. Ronald Reagan Ushered in an Age of Gallows Humor and Dangerous Laughter

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No one entertainer came up with the concept of the “roast” — it just sort of happened gradually, and now just about every dinner features a healthy dose of presidential pummeling. The most egregious mauling, of course, wax probably handed down by Stephen Colbert to President George W. Bush.

But if you had to point to one moment in history that would usher in the comedy roasting age, you could say it was the bold presidential actions of one Ronald Reagan, a consummate performer and a man willing to laugh at his own failed assassination attempt. Reagan survived a shooting in 1981, and decided to attend the dinner just one month removed from the attack. Reagan didn’t just show up in happy spirits—he even got the party started by joking about the event himself, saying “When somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it!”

Reagan was even “boss” enough to joke about Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who had made headlines earlier by stating he was in charge of things in Reagan’s absence, not Bush. Yes, you could say that. You’d be wrong, but you could still physically say it.

But let’s not forget another masterful comedian President…

4. Cheesy Guest Stars Were, Like, Totally an Eighties Thing

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Believe it or not, the White House Correspondents Dinner was once a serious and stuffy affair, and all the celebrities were A-listers, privileged to meet the Commander in Chief. You could say that the whole climate changed thanks to a brass move by Michael Kelly, a well-known reporter at the time. He decided it would be best to bring along the notorious Fawn Hall (one of the key players in the Iran-Contra scandal). Perhaps it took someone like Kelly to figure out what the press wanted—controversy and decisions made in questionable taste, just to get the country talking.

Kelly’s move wasn’t just coincidence. The next year, he brought along Donna Rice, another eyebrow-raising guest who was involved in Gary Hart’s scandal, and who thus destroyed his political aspirations. Ever since then, it’s been a game of “Who can top this?” as the movers and shakers of politics bringing an almost soap opera-like element to the show.

3. George Bush (Among Other Republicans) Don’t Really Enjoy Comedy Mixed With Their Food

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George W. Bush was either a very good sport or a very good actor, considering how Stephen Colbert completely decimated him on stage during the already-uncomfortable 2006 Dinner and Bush elected not to explode in rage. If he had though, he would have been far from the first Republican to not have a good time at one of these things. In fact, quite a few recent Republican presidents were quoted as not particularly appreciating the dinner. Richard M. Nixon told H.R. Haldeman, Chief of Staff, following a 1971 WHCD, “I’ve done it for so many years. Hated every one of them. You know, by God.”

However, it wasn’t just the grimacing Tricky Dick who disliked these showy and high-pressure comedy shows. George H.W. Bush told his Communications Director, David F. Demarest Jr., that he “hated those things” and that he wasn’t “goddamned Johnny Carson.” Demarest actually told the President that he was a funny guy and should show the world his wit, but even today, few people would believe such a thing as humor coming from the cranky ex-president. At least Saturday Night Live comedian Dana Carvey would later make George Bush funny, albeit in the most emasculating way possible.

2. President Obama Joined in the Roasting, and Went Too Far

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How fair is it that, for years on end, comedians have lambasted the president for every mistake he’s ever make while he sits in begrudging silence, but as soon as the Commander-in-Chief joins in the dark humor, the press flips out? That’s exactly what happened in 2010. when Barack Obama famously made light of the infamous war drones, and also sent a smiling death threat to the Jonas Brothers (Not that we especially blame him for the latter).

Obama elicited laughs with this rib-tickler: “Jonas Brothers are here, they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?”

The room laughed heartily but the anti-Democratic media was outraged at the apparent flippancy of the White House over a controversial subject, prompting Will Bunch of Philadelphia Daily News to call time out, saying, “Let’s be honest, fellow progressives; we’d be all over Bush if he made the same ‘predator drone’ joke.” Guess this teaches us that only Jeffrey Ross gets to make death jokes these days. Maybe President Obama should wait until 2017 to try out the avant-garde comedy circuit.

1. At Long Last, the Press Dissed the President

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How fitting to end with a reversal of fortune where this time, it’s the press dissing the president. Tom Brokaw famously criticized the White House Correspondents Dinner, declining an invitation to attend in 2013. While you might think the troubling issue was politics, Brokaw actually blamed Lindsay Lohan for it all — sort of. Brokaw, perhaps the most respected journalist in the legitimate news industry, told the POLITICO website, “The breaking point for me was Lindsay Lohan … She became a big star at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Give me a break.”

Of course, there’s more to it than just Lindsay’s poor acting ability—Brokaw didn’t actually watch I Know Who Killed Me (which gives him something in common with everybody else on Earth.) He did elaborate however, suggesting “I think any organization has to have a kind of self-policing instinct and what we’re doing with that dinner … is saying, ‘We’re Versailles. The rest of you eat cake.’”

But before you lower your head in shame at how low all this political showbiz depravity has come, do understand that Brokaw was probably more incensed at Lindsay personally, than the whole idea of having innocent fun. After all, Brokaw later declared, “Claire Danes is not someone I’m talking about. She’s a big deal.”


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1 Comment

  1. George Condon on

    Would appreciate hearing from Chris Flynn. I am the historian for the White House Correspondents Association and have a question about one thing in this story — I had never heard there was any newsreel or movie footage of the 1924 dinner. Would like to learn more on that. Thanks for the help.

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