Washington — The White House press corps’ annual gala returned Saturday night along with the roasting of Washington, the journalists who cover it and the man at the helm: President Biden.
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, featured Mr. Biden as the first president in six years to accept an invitation. Donald Trump shunned the event while in office.
“Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year — now that would have really been a real coup,” Mr. Biden joked to an audience of 2,600, among them journalists, government officials and celebrities.
The president took the opportunity to test out his comedic chops, making light of the criticism he has faced in his 15 months in office while taking aim at his predecessor, the Republican Party and the members of the press.
“I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have,” Mr. Biden said to the Hilton ballroom filled with members of the media.
Mr. Biden also made light of the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan, which has become the right’s stand-in for swearing at the president.
“Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon,” Mr. Biden said, causing an uproar of laughter among the crowd. “He’s having a really good year. I’m happy for him.”
As far as roasting the GOP, he said, “There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.”
He also took a jab at Fox News. “I know there are a lot of questions about whether we should gather here tonight because of COVID. Well, we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic. Plus, everyone has to prove they are fully vaccinated and boosted,” Mr. Biden said. “Just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They’re all here. Vaccinated and boosted.”
Mr. Biden concluded his remarks on a serious note, saying, “With disinformation massively on the rise, where the truth is buried by lies and the lies live on as truth, what’s clear, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, that you the free press, matter more than you ever did in the last century.”
The dinner had other serious moments, with tributes to pioneer journalists of color, aspiring student reporters as well as a dedication to the journalists detained, injured or killed during the coverage of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In addition to speeches from Biden and comedian Trevor Noah, the hourslong event had taped skits from talk-show host James Corden, comedian Billy Eichner and even Biden himself.
“Thank you for having me here,” Noah said to Biden. “And I was a little confused on why me, but then I was told that you get your highest approval ratings when a biracial African guy is standing next to you.”
The annual dinner is the main source of revenue for the White House Correspondents’ Association, which comprises hundreds of journalists from print, broadcast, digital and radio. Proceeds from the dinner also go toward scholarships for promising journalism students, and professional journalism awards are also given out.
The premier event for news media in Washington, the correspondents’ dinner mixed Washington journalists like CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid with celebrities Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Brooke Shields, Caitlyn Jenner, Drew Barrymore and Martha Stewart. Among the large swath of government officials and other prominent figures was Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Accompanied by the first lady, the president came to the event while trying to strike a careful balance with the nation fatigued by the pandemic yet facing an uptick in infections. The ongoing national threat has struck closer to home for the president: Vice President Kamala Harristhis past week and Dr. Anthony Fauci skipped the dinner for health precautions.
The U.S. was experiencing a COVID-19 case spike from a highly contagious subvariant of Omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Still, virus deaths and hospitalizations were near, or at, pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier virus strains.
In the wake of the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and of Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19. The White House Correspondents’ Association said it was requiring same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak, then added a vaccination requirement.
Mr. Biden, 79, decided to pass up the meal but turned up later for the program. While he planned to be masked when not speaking, a maskless president greeted award winners on the dais and could be seen smiling broadly during the dinner program.
The correspondents’ dinner debuted in 1921. Three years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend and all have since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend every year of their presidencies, however, and Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment — but called in from Camp David.
“The thing I think this shows is the restoration to the health of the relationship,” Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press” and the director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, said ahead of the dinner. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But that’s OK.”