In his first two years as president, Joe Biden has been relatively reluctant to meet with members of the news media. But there were no hard feelings in evidence Saturday night as Biden and first lady Jill Biden happily joined the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner.
The president, dapper in a tuxedo, seemed relaxed as he sat at the head table on the dais along with Vice President Harris and other VIPs in the vast subterranean ballroom of the Washington Hilton. Journalists suspended their watchful reticence for the evening, giving, as is traditional, a warm greeting to the nation’s chief executive.
Biden offered a few topical zingers in his after-dinner remarks. “I get that age is a completely reasonable issue,” the 80-year-old president said of the wariness heading into a recently announced reelection campaign. Then he referenced 92-year-old Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch: “How could I dislike a guy who makes me look like Harry Styles?”
And he brought up Fox News’s $787.5 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. “MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal,” he said, then joked that “Fox News is owned by Dominion Voting Systems. … [Fox staffers] are here because they couldn’t say no to a free meal.”
In a more serious part of his speech, he drew a sharp contrast with his predecessor, who called the news media “the enemy of the people,” telling the throng, “The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar of a free society — not the enemy.”
The president also paid tribute to two captive journalists, freelancer Austin Tice and the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich. Tice has been held captive in Syria for nearly 11 years. Gershkovich was arrested last month and held by Russian authorities on spying charges — the first American journalist to be held captive in Russia since the Cold War. “I’m working like hell to get them home,” he said.
And Biden acknowledged the presence of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was released by Russian officials in December after 10 months of captivity in a prisoner exchange negotiated by his administration.
As he turned things over to “The Daily Show’s” Roy Wood Jr., the evening’s featured comedian, Biden referenced an internet meme, which his camp has lately embraced, that suggests the existence of a sinister presidential alter ego called “Dark Brandon.”
“I’m gonna be fine with your jokes,” he said; then added, while putting on aviator sunglasses: “But I’m not sure about Dark Brandon.”
Wood Jr. riffed on the week’s two big media departures: Tucker Carlson’s firing by Fox News and Don Lemon’s firing by CNN. Turning to Biden, Wood said that Carlson’s removal from the air meant that “millions of Americans don’t know why they hate you.”
He called Lemon a “diva” who had insulted women on the air, but added that CNN should have capitalized on the explosion of publicity. “That’s a promotion at Fox News,” he said.
As usual, there were famous faces in attendance — sports figures (Enes Kanter Freedom); actors and TV personalities (Liev Schreiber, newly minted Oscar winner Ke Huy Quan and “Property Brothers” Drew and Jonathan Scott); musicians (John Legend, along with his model wife, Chrissy Teigen); assorted pols (Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Sen. John Fetterman); and the usual Cabinet secretaries and Washington worthies (Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former covid czar Anthony Fauci).
There were even some actual Washington correspondents — though working journalists, as usual, were vastly outnumbered by publishers, advertiser-friends of publishers, dates of friends of publishers and other people who have nothing to do with Washington or corresponding.
Which is to say, the event more or less continued its return to form after a few bummed-out years that included pandemic-related cancellations in 2020 and 2021 and President Donald Trump’s boycott and criticisms of the dinner throughout his term.
The glitzy spring gala featured something new as well: a protest outside the hotel by about 100 climate activists, who urged Biden to end drilling and mining on public lands. The logic of the protest seemed to be, if you want the news media to highlight your cause, a room full of news media types is a pretty good place to do it.
Last year, Biden skipped the dinner portion of the gala as a covid precaution; he showed up later to give the traditional self-deprecating/media-ribbing speech, then ducked out after about an hour. (That dinner did indeed prove to be a superspreader, or at least a semi-spreader, of the virus, though Biden was not infected.)
This year, the correspondents association were encouraged to submit a same-day negative test, but there seemed to be little enforcement. Also missing: masks. There were few worn among the 2,600 or so guests in the crowded, cramped and windowless ballroom.
Even though it was a social occasion aimed at comity and comedy, the dinner marked one of the relatively few formal encounters between Biden and members of the White House press during his administration.
During his first two years in office, Biden has given just 20 news conferences, the third lowest total for a president in the past 100 years, according to the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara. Only Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan held fewer (14 for both, though Reagan’s total was diminished by his recovery from an assassination attempt early in his first term). Biden also doesn’t give many interviews: just 58 in two years, the least by far of his six most recent predecessors, according to presidential scholar Martha Kumar.
Biden’s actual working exchanges with reporters have tended to be short, fast and semi-chaotic, such as during Oval Office photo ops or before stepping on the presidential helicopter. He had 375 such encounters in his first two years, a figure exceeded only by Bill Clinton (394), said Kumar.
The lack of more formal opportunities has been a source of grumbling by the people hosting Biden Saturday night’s affair.
“We’re very frustrated,” said NPR reporter Tamara Keith, the president of the correspondents’ association, in an interview a week before the dinner.
Keith mostly put that aside Saturday night. In her remarks, she noted the arrest of Gershkovich. She also introduced Deborah Tice, the mother of Austin Tice.
The program began with a taped message from actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who praised the work of the press. “I wouldn’t be the Arnold that you know without the press. … I remind myself you’re doing the people’s work.” In a reversal of Trump’s infamous critique, he called journalists “the allies of the people.”
Roxanne Roberts and Jesus Rodriguez contributed to this report.