WASHINGTON — Say goodbye to the jokes that have flowed from the dais of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for decades: The correspondents’ association on Monday announced that biographer Ron Chernow will be the featured speaker at the annual black-tie event this spring.
Having a serious speaker — Chernow is an esteemed historian who has chronicled the lives of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant, among others — is a big break from the tradition of having a stand-up comedian entertain the ballroom of journalists, members of Congress and administration types.
“I’m delighted that Ron will share his lively, deeply researched perspectives on American politics and history at the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” said WHCA president Olivier Knox, who is the chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM, in a news release. “As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history.”
The programming switcheroo followed the controversy over last year’s comedian, Michelle Wolf, who landed polarizing punchlines about White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who attended the dinner and sat at the head table in the stead of her boss. “She burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” Wolf said of the Trump spokeswoman, who she also likened to an “Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women.”
“The so-called comedian really ‘bombed,’ “ tweeted President Donald Trump, who had skipped the dinner for the second time in his administration.
Chernow’s material is likely to be far less edgy. “The White House Correspondents’ Association has asked me to make the case for the First Amendment and I am happy to oblige,” Chernow said in the association’s news release. “Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics.”
But he promised to make his performance at the event, which will take place April 27, at least a little entertaining. “While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian, I promise that my history lesson won’t be dry,” he added.
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Since the early 1980s, the dinner has featured a stand-up act by a celebrity comic who makes jokes targeting both the president and the media. The president gets his turn at the mic to deliver a jokey stand-up act of his own. But that setup has become fraught in recent years by Trump’s boycott, which leaves half the jokes landing on a target who isn’t there to give as good as he gets.
The dinner itself, too, has come under scrutiny for its transformation into a celebrity-laden spectacle in which sources and the journalists who cover them appear to cozy up for a formal-dress schmooze. And in the Trump years, it’s lost some of its luster, since the president and Hollywood types have stayed away.
But will a WHCD with fewer laughs — and a bigger focus on the First Amendment and the association’s scholarships that the dinner funds — be any fun? “Frankly, people don’t want to put on a tux and come out on a Saturday night to get lectured to,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent who now heads George Washington University’s School of Media and Public affairs, told us before the first dinner under the Trump administration.
But this year’s decision might have come down to the bottom line: Following the 2018 dinner, several news organizations who are members of the WHCA threatened to pull financial support unless the board eliminated the comedic performance.