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Trump Is Wrong to Skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

For four years, I was responsible for President Obama’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. During those years, a growing number of critics argued that the dinner — with its celebrity guests and expanding galaxy of pre- and after-parties — had jumped the shark.

我为奥巴马总统撰写了四年的白宫记者晚宴(White House Correspondents’ Association dinner)发言稿。在那些年里,因其名人嘉宾和数量越来越多的晚宴前派对和晚宴余兴派对,有越来越多的批评者称这个晚宴在走下坡路。

Now that I no longer write jokes for the president, I’m free to admit the critics have a point. The correspondents’ dinner has become, in a word, gross. The competition to see which news outlets can score the biggest stars. The government officials walking the red carpet. The lengths some people will go to (heck, the lengths I discovered I was willing to go) to be invited to a morning-of brunch.


Given all this, you might think I was delighted to hear of President Trump’s decision, announced on Saturday, to turn down the annual invite. Good riddance! It’s about time! In fact, however, it’s just the opposite. President Trump’s decision to skip this year’s event is a reminder that, for all its excesses, the correspondents’ dinner still matters.


The most important part of my job as a joke writer for the leader of the free world was also the least glamorous: Self-deprecation. “I will not be a perfect president,” admitted then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. As president, he was willing to joke about those imperfections, from his sliding poll numbers (in 2010), to his reputation for acting professorial (2011), to his rapid aging (2012, 2013, 2015, 2016). “Now that’s not even funny,” the commander-in-chief once remarked, after we suggested he would resemble Morgan Freeman by the end of his second term.

作为给这个自由世界的领导人写笑话的人,我工作中最重要也是最乏味的部分,就是自嘲。“我不会成为一个完美的总统,”当时还是总统候选人的贝拉克·奥巴马在2008年便这样承认。作为总统,他愿意拿自己不完美的地方开玩笑,不管是他下滑的民调数字(2010年)、举止充满学究气的名声(2011年),还是他的快速衰老(2012、2013、2015和2016年)。“这可一点都不好笑,”在听我们说他在第二任期结束时看起来会像摩根·弗里曼(Morgan Freeman)时,这位三军统帅这样讲道。

He used the joke anyway. Because President Obama understood that there’s a reason self-deprecating humor is a correspondents’-dinner staple. Let other nations’ leaders cast themselves as flawless demigods, towering over the mere mortals they control. In America, we expect our chief executives to poke fun at themselves on live TV. Our leaders must acknowledge that, despite their awesome power, they are only human. The audience demands it. In a small way, democracy demands it as well.

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Of course, it’s not just the president who gets to take the president down a peg. The correspondents’ dinner features a headliner, a professional comedian, who almost always takes at least a few shots at the most powerful person on Earth. The most famous example of this occurred in 2006, when Stephen Colbert thoroughly ridiculed President George W. Bush, who was sitting mere feet away. I doubt President Bush enjoyed being roasted. Still, he forced a smile. He knew (or at least pretended) that the joking was in good fun.

当然,不是只有总统自己才能拿总统开涮。记者晚宴总会请来一位大明星,也就是一位职业喜剧演员,此人几乎总会对这位地球上最具权势的人物开上几“枪”。最著名的例子发生在2006年,当时斯蒂芬·科尔伯特(Stephen Colbert)大肆嘲笑坐在几英尺开外的乔治·W·布什(George W. Bush)总统。我怀疑布什总统是否真会享受这样被人挖苦。但他还是努力挤出笑容。他知道(或者至少假装知道)这些是善意的玩笑。

Because that’s another remarkably democratic correspondents’-dinner tradition: the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military, the person with the nuclear codes, publicly submits to being teased.


In America, we take it for granted that our presidents can be ridiculed to their faces with impunity. After all, we don’t work for them; they work for us. But this attitude is part of what makes us exceptional.


A public display of humility, however, is only one time-honored aspect of a traditional correspondents’ dinner monologue. There is also what we referred to as “truth-telling.” In plain English, this meant the president got to mock the parts of Washington he felt deserved it. In the Obama White House, our team of joke writers relished truth-telling. Cable news networks. Republicans in Congress. Dick Cheney. At onetime or another, all of them became rhetorical punching bags.

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不过,公开展现的谦逊只是传统记者晚宴长篇大论的一项悠久传统。也有我们所说的“事实陈述”部分。用直白的英语讲,这意味着总统要嘲讽他认为华盛顿应该被嘲讽的那些部分。在奥巴马的白宫,我们这个写笑话的团队喜欢事实陈述。有线新闻网、国会的共和党人、迪克·切尼(Dick Cheney)。他们所有人都一度成为言语攻击的对象。

Yet the president’s eagerness to let loose one night each year only highlights the restraint he practiced the other 364. I have no doubt there are multiple occasions on which he would have loved to tee off indiscriminately on Senator Mitch McConnell, or Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, or journalists he felt were unfair. But he didn’t. Understanding the power of his words — and the dignity of his office — President Obama saved his edgiest material for the proper place and time. By breaking the unwritten codes of conduct for a night, it emphasized the importance of adhering to them in the morning.

然而,总统每年渴望有这样一个夜晚放松自己,更突显出他在其余的364天表现出来的克制。我毫不怀疑,在多个场合,他很想随意抨击参议员米奇·麦康奈尔(Mitch McConnell)、共和党超级捐款人谢尔登·埃德森(Sheldon Adelson),或者他认为不公平的记者。但他没有。奥巴马总统了解自己话语的力量——以及自己办公室的尊严——他把最犀利的素材留到了合适的场合和时间。在一个夜晚打破不成文的行为准则,更强调了在第二天早上坚守这些准则的重要性。

There is one final element to a correspondents’ dinner speech. The “serious close.” It’s no secret that President Obama, like all chief executives, was frequently annoyed with the news media. Yet each year, after about 15 minutes of jokes, he took time to publicly extol the importance of a free press.


“We are lucky,” said the president, “To live in a country where reporters can give a head of state a hard time on a daily basis.”


Like nearly every commander-in-chief before him, President Obama understood that the adversarial relationship between an administration and the reporters who cover it does not make the press the enemy. The correspondents’ dinner was a détente rooted in shared values, an opportunity to recognize that our country is better off when both journalists and presidents fulfill the responsibilities they bear. And all Americans — chief executives included — are freer and safer thanks to an independent press.


So put aside, for just a moment, the grossness of the modern-day correspondents’ dinner. Forget the fawning over celebrities, the name-dropping, the unseemliness of serious journalists and White House staffers (again, myself included) groveling for invitations. At its heart, the dinner is still a tribute to the values that make America great. Just by showing up, the world’s most powerful person makes a statement about the kind of country — and president — we have.


And by not showing up? Well, that makes a statement, too.




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