In the hour before the White House Correspondents' Association dinner began at what used to be called the "Hinckley Hilton" in Washington, I asked attendees — journalists, politicians, opinion-makers, advertising & PR types — what they expected of an evening without the president.
"Happier than I've been in 20 years," said one veteran, who happens to be a faithful Democrat.
"Because Hollywood isn't here. Much nicer without Hollywood."
Indeed, unlike many other years, it was possible to walk around freely without encountering scrums of people and camera crews, cheek-by-jowl, jamming hallways as they struggled to get a look at, say, Jenna Dewan or Kendall Jenner.
A businessman — an outside-the-Beltway ad man who serviced Washington-based publications — was unhappy for the same reason the veteran was happy. He wanted to see celebrities. "But I did see Woodward and Bernstein," he told me, brightening a bit.
A few minutes later, a filmmaker fretted about Hasan Minhaj, the Comedy Central performer who was to be the night's entertainment. Minhaj, referred to widely as a "Muslim comedian," was expected to slam Trump on not just Muslim issues but everything else. "I'm worried he's going to be mean-spirited, just go after everyone," the filmmaker said.
A prominent writer who walked up had a different take. "This is going to be the most pious ever," he said. Among the WHCA officials who ran the event, he explained, there would be piety for freedom of the press, for the First Amendment, and for the commitment and dedication they themselves display every day. Among the the entertainment — Minhaj — there would pious lesson-teaching about the evils of seeing Muslims and immigrants as "others." Piety all around.
As it turned out, the writer-filmmaker team won the night's prediction game. Just as the writer predicted, the media self-regard on display at the Hinckley Hilton Saturday was of a degree seldom, if ever, equaled at traditional Washington events — and that is saying something. And Minhaj did indeed take his opportunity to teach those assembled about the dangers of discrimination. On the other hand, the filmmaker correctly foresaw the sheer, unfiltered, nastiness — directed not just at Trump but also at top members of his administration — that Minhaj delivered along with his lessons.
Bottom line: The White House Correspondents' dinner, the premier event of the Washington press corps, was two hours of mawkish self-celebration followed by 30 minutes of Trump-bashing.
The self-celebration began with a video in which past players in the White House-press nexus stressed the importance of cherishing and protecting the role of journalists. It continued with the remarks of Jeff Mason, the Reuters correspondent who is this year's president of the Correspondents' Association, and continued further with a rare joint appearance by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and continued further with the announcement of this year's journalism awards, and continued further with the awarding of scholarships to aspiring journalists, and continued further…well, it simply never stopped.
Mason's remarks managed to be both self-congratulating and defiant, and at the same time proof that Trump is living rent-free in the White House Correspondents' Association's collective heads. For many years, the dinner has been almost entirely about the president. This year, with Trump absent, the Association tried mightily to make the dinner about freedom of the press, about the value of journalism, about the First Amendment — the big banner behind the podium read CELEBRATING THE FIRST AMENDMENT. But the fact was, the dinner was still all about the president. It was just about a president who wasn't there.
"Tonight looks a little different," Mason conceded upfront. Different, but not worse; Trump's absence not only did not harm the Correspondents' Association, Mason told the crowd, it in fact served to reinforce the group's values. "We are here to celebrate the press," Mason declared, "not the presidency."
But the dinner has always been about celebrating the presidency, and — especially in the Obama years — about celebrating the president. Mason, to his credit, began with an important, if awkward, concession: With the exception of one hiccup early in the administration (the time the White House excluded a number of reporters from an off-camera briefing), the press is actually doing quite well under Donald Trump.
"The press is still in the White House Briefing Room and we are still on Air Force One," Mason said. "In fact, press access under President Trump has been very good."
That's probably an understatement. Trump has been wildly accessible to the press, and his top aides seem quite willing to talk to reporters, if only to dish on rivals in the White House. A buttoned-down, silent-treatment White House it is not.
One might think that would be cause for celebration. But no. "Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do," Mason said. "We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people. The WHCA is proud to stand up for all of our members. An attack on any of us, is an attack on all of us."
At times it seemed that in the minds of the nation's premier political journalists, the hurt feelings after Trump's tweets outweighed the real access he and his White House have given the press.
Mason went on to read the text of the First Amendment. Which, of course, for all the focus on the White House, begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law…" Whatever.
From that, Mason noted that the Amendment protects satire, and the Correspondents' Association just happened to have received "a special message of support from someone who engages in satire and wants to share it with the journalists in this room." Turned out it was a video, just ten seconds in length, from Alec Baldwin, the actor who receives widespread coverage every time he savages Trump on "Saturday Night Live."
"Keep up the good work," Baldwin-as-Trump said. And that's all he said. It was by any measure a pretty skimpy contribution, but the Association seemed happy to have even a tiny touch of SNL.
"Thank you Alex Baldwin for those quick but meaningful words of encouragement," Mason said.
"And that brings me to the toast," Mason continued. "Tonight, we salute White House reporters. Please raise a glass to them, to freedom of the press, and to journalists here and around the world." For a dinner dedicated to toasting the president, it was an involuntary change in tradition. (At last year's dinner, Association president Carol Lee looked at President Obama and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please raise a glass for what is by tradition our only toast of the evening: to the President of the United States.")
Part of the effort to make up for Trump's absence was the enlistment of Woodward and Bernstein, who made a joint presentation based in large part on their reporting of Watergate 45 years ago. Both men are, of course, genuine journalistic legends, with a place in history, but the appearance at times felt like two elders telling a reassuring bedtime story to a troubled child. "Grandpa, tell us again about the time you brought down a president…"
And on it went, for a long, long time. Reporters, even big stars with remarkable access to the White House, appeared on the defensive, over and over. We are not fake news, they said. We are not. Not!
Finally it was time for Minhaj. The "Daily Show" comic managed to work his identity as a Muslim into the first few sentences of his routine, which at times seemed straight from Resistance Twitter. Trump is the liar-in-chief. He's the "orange man behind the Muslim ban." The real leader of the country (that would be Vladimir Putin) is not at the dinner because, of course, he lives in Moscow.
Trump's aides, a crew of racists and Nazis, weren't in the room, either, Minhaj said. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote "NO" on his invitation. "Just 'no,' which happens to be his second favorite N-word."
Spokesman Sean Spicer was also absent, Minhaj said. "His go-to move when you ask him a tough question is denying the Holocaust."
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wasn't there because "she's busy curating her collection of children's tears."
Nor was top White House aide Steve Bannon present. "I do not see Steve Bannon," Minhaj said. "I do NOT see Steve Bannon. Not see Steve Bannon. Not see Steve Bannon." He kept on until no one could miss that he meant Nazi Steve Bannon.
And so on. But Minhaj would not be without his moment of piety. Because Trump doesn't listen to experts and advisers, and instead gets his information from the press, Minhaj explained, it is extremely important for the press to be up to the job.
"You gotta be twice as good," Minhaj told the crowd. "You can't make any mistakes. Because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group. And now you know what it feels like to be a minority."
And finally, a homily to end the night:
I was asked to not roast the president and the administration in absentia, and I completely understand that. We are in a very strange situation where there's a very combative relationship between the press and the president. But now that you guys are minorities — just for this moment — you might understand the position I was in, and it's the same position a lot of minority kids feel in this country.
And it's — you know, do I come up here and just try to fit in? And not ruffle any feathers? Or do I say how I really feel? Because this event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy. From college campuses to the White House, only in America can a first generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president. The orange man behind the Muslim ban. And it's a sign to the rest of the world. It's this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.
But the president didn't show up, because Donald Trump doesn't care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it.
Even when the comedian stopped his routine to become himself, and became deadly serious, his thoughts were all about Trump. The president is living rent-free in Hasan Minhaj's head, too.
Some journalists have argued for years that the White House Correspondents' Dinner should be scrapped. Some boycotted the dinner long before Trump's arrival. Now, whatever else it is, the ponderous, sprawling, celebrity-heavy event that it has become is based entirely on the presidency. And when the man himself is sitting at the head table, how could it not? The flip side of that is that the absence of the president, for a number of years running, might make it increasingly hard for organizers to keep going.
Trump is already dropping hints that he might attend next year. Maybe he will. But he has an opportunity to kill the dinner simply by refusing to attend for four years straight. Could the dinner really survive as just a celebration of the press, that is, more of the same that we saw Saturday night? Maybe not. Without a president to fixate on and draw the world's attention, the dinner might conceivably evolve into the annual White House Correspondents' Association First Amendment Lunch.
It's up to the president.