The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner is poised for a “reset,” as the annual “Nerd Prom” reaches its third presidentless year in the Trump era — and the first time in decades without a Hollywood headliner at its helm.
“When I ran for the job in early 2016, I told folks that I felt the dinner needed a reset, to be more serious, to put the focus back on journalism, on the job of chronicling a presidency and holding it to account,” WHCA President Olivier Knox says. “I’ve kept that campaign promise.”
For the first time in years, a comedian, late-night TV host or Hollywood star won’t serve as the entertainer at the black-tie bash. Past performers at the dinner include big names such as Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Wanda Sykes, Stephen Colbert and Cecily Strong. But in the wake of comedian Michelle Wolf’s controversial remarks last year — in which she torched Trump administration officials during an explicit set — the WHCA tapped acclaimed biographer Ron Chernow for the high-profile gig.
“I haven’t told him what to say,” says Knox of the writer, who penned a biography of Alexander Hamilton that was the basis for the smash Broadway musical, “but I’m hopeful he’ll be able to be put the current environment in Washington, D.C., in its political context of tensions between the presidency and the press.”
Chernow declined an interview request about his plans for the big night, saying through a spokeswoman that “he’d prefer that his speech speak for itself.”
In past years, a bevy of A-listers descended on the District for the social event of the year, with everyone from Bradley Cooper to George Clooney to Kim Kardashian West rubbing elbows with members of Congress and White House officials in the VIP crowd.
“It’s just we reached a point where you were more likely to run into a sitcom star than a sound engineer — and that’s a shame,” says Knox.
“I’m grateful for any and all celebrity support for a free and independent news media, but the dinner shouldn’t be remembered for which stars attended.”
For two years in a row, Trump, who bashes the press on a regular basis and has called the “fake news media” the “enemy of the people,” has bucked tradition and skipped the annual festivities — and he plans to do it again. In comments to reporters earlier this month, Trump slammed the dinner as “boring” and “too negative,” announcing he’d instead hold a political rally the same night — somewhere away from D.C.
Asked about Trump’s criticism, or his response to those who say to expect a snoozefest from this year’s correspondents’ dinner, Knox, SiriusXM’s chief Washington correspondent, says, “Losing the part of the audience that thinks history is tedious and has nothing to teach us doesn’t keep me up at night.”
While the dinner might be taking on a weightier tone, the party scene surrounding the annual function appears to be making something of a comeback. In the first two years of the Trump administration, several news organizations, including The Hill, canceled their events tied to the correspondents’ dinner. Some cited a lack of famous faces in left-leaning Hollywood willing to attend the glam gatherings, while others pointed to trouble finding sponsors for the affairs with a controversial new president. But some correspondents’ shindigs are making a return.
United Talent Agency will host its exclusive get-together at Fiola Mare on the eve of the dinner. The Los Angeles Times is planning an after-party fundraiser following the dinner at the National Press Club to raise money for Austin Tice, a journalist missing in Syria; Knox says part of the dinner itself will also be “celebrating and thinking about” Tice.
The Hill will kick off correspondents’ weekend the night before the dinner with its own “Toast to Freedom of the Press” at the National Portrait Gallery. The bash promises to feature the “biggest names in Washington” at a “celebration of politics without prejudice.” Grammy Award-winning musician Questlove is poised to perform at the bipartisan festivities.
Despite Trump’s condemnation of the dinner, Knox says organizers are expecting that some members of his administration will attend the WHCA’s event.
But the timing of this year’s dinner could negatively impact the turnout from members of Congress. For the first time in many years, the dinner is scheduled while the House and Senate are in recess. Knox explains that the date for each year’s dinner is locked in years in advance.
The timing with lawmakers’ schedules, he says, is “definitely suboptimal” and “has been an issue.”
“There are a lot of people who told me they’d love to attend but they’re going to be overseas on various CODELs [congressional delegations],” says Knox.
For the first time in roughly two decades, the Creative Coalition — which typically flies in several top Hollywood entertainers — won’t be among the organizations reveling at the correspondents’ dinner because of the congressional recess conflict.
“We would love to have been at the correspondents’ dinner, except we tie it to a day where we advocate for the arts to Congress, and Congress is out of session,” says Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk.
In the end, Knox says the goal of the correspondents’ dinner is to “celebrate the First Amendment and celebrate great journalists past, present and future.” And with all the many factors at play ahead of the dinner, according to Knox, media outlets are still clamoring to get their hands on coveted tickets to the yearly spectacle.
Due to high demand, the WHCA has already had to “refund some table requests.”