I was invited to attend Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Assn. dinner at what some D.C. locals jocularly refer to as the "Hinckley Hilton", the hotel in front of which John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. My hosts were a local Washington columnist and a well-known investigative journalist. You probably already know some of the other attendees: this was no doubt to be the only evening in my life when I occupied the same room at the same time as Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Sanjaya.
The dinner is an annual ritual that attempts to project the notion of comity between the White House and the press that covers it, while simultaneously engaging in some "good-natured" mutual ribbing. This is the event at which Stephen Colbert performed what became his YouTube smash last year, and so this time around, in an attempt to prioritize comity over comedy, a somewhat different choice was made for entertainment. If you care, you already know how that turned out.
But what struck me more is what came before, when the President stood up to deliver what, traditionally, is ten or fifteen minutes of carefully crafted standup. This time, the Pitcher-in-Chief threw a curve, if not a scroogie. He would not, he announced, "try to be the funny guy tonight", because we'd all had a tough week, owing to the tragedy in Blacksburg. Even though he was preceded by a Letterman Top Ten video montage of goofy and embarassing Presidential moments, and followed by Rich Little, President Bush desisted from the usual jocularity, out of, one was expected to conclude, respect.
But it's okay to crack jokes every other year while we're at war and hundreds of young people the same age as the VT students are dying in Iraq directly because of the decisions of the man doing standup? If this Presidential moment wasn't crass and cheesy, wrapping his reluctance to engage in the ritual inside a sanctimonious concern for--the sentiments of the families who couldn't care less what was going on at the Hilton, the delicate feelings of those in the room who'd had to work in Virginia this week?--then I don't know crass and cheesy.
And I think I do.
I was interested in the fact that I couldn't find anyone in this media-saturated room who would defend NBC's Cho-a-thon. Maybe my sample was skewed--I never got to talk to Katie, for example--or maybe, as a media-savvy friend observed the next morning, the herd had all already "moved on".
Also of note: another investigative reporter, with whom I had an extended conversation about New Orleans and the failure of major media, including his newspaper, to accurately and comprehensively cover the story of why the levees failed. He had, he told me, written impassioned memoes to his editor(s) about the need to cover it, and the answer was always the same: It's too complicated.
Finally, although most of the attendees seem to have "moved on" sufficiently to not even utter the name "Don Imus" at the event, someone at my table pronounced himself sad at Imus' fall, and his presumed inability to get another gig now. I thought, well, he could kick the sick kids out of the ranch and have a pretty nice retirement home, but a friend of mine the following morning made a far more pertinent point: Since Imus was hired as a shock jock, his contract probably foresaw a situation where he might "go over the line", without violating FCC regulations or imperiling his home station's license. So, she concluded, in the same way that his "suspension" started out to be a paid vacation before CBS relented and announced it was unpaid, is his firing a paid leave of absence? Is Don Imus now being paid by CBS and MSNBC to not insult people?