With no comedian and no Trump, author Chernow gives White House correspondents' dinner a reset

Author Ron Chernow sought to make up for the lack of a comedian with a powerful mix of humor and history.
Image: Author and historian Ron Chernow speaks at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington
Author and historian Ron Chernow speaks at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington, April 27, 2019.JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN / Reuters

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By Claire Atkinson

WASHINGTON — With no comedian, few if any celebrities, and an edict from President Donald Trump that administration staff should not attend, the White House Correspondents Association’s annual televised dinner was largely expected to fizzle on Saturday.

Instead, Pulitzer Prize winning “Hamilton” author Ron Chernow provided a reset for an event that had received attention for all the wrong reasons of late.

Last year, the association denounced its own comedian, Michelle Wolf, after she drew criticism for ridiculing White House press secretary Sarah Sanders in her monologue.

Chernow sought to make up for the lack of a comedian with a powerful mix of humor and history. There were no belly laughs, but an amusing and informative look at presidential relations with the press through the centuries.

The author began by recalling President George Washington, but soon moved on to contemporary matters. And while he stayed largely clear of the controversial terrain of last year’s event, Chernow didn’t pull any political punches.

He joked that there was a rumor he’d been reading the redacted portions of the Mueller Report and talked of “our surreal interlude in American life.”

“Our precious Republic feels fragile, even perishable and after the shooting at the synagogue in San Diego today, our civil society feels fragile as well,” Chernow said on a more serious note.

“I shudder at the sheer savagery to which Washington politics has descended.”

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He added: “We’ve also seen the wisdom of our constitution at work, with a bold press, an independent judiciary, a rejuvenated congress providing checks on executive power. We are being tested but I like to think that decency will prevail.”

Chernow concluded the speech with a joke. “As we head into an election season, I leave you with one final gem from (Mark) Twain,” he said.

“Politicians and diapers must be changed often and for the same reason. Good night and God bless America.”

Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney told NBC News he would give the speech an "A-Plus." "It was funny, as funny as most comedians you listen to, and it was inspiring and he quoted Lincoln extensively so I’ll quote by saying, 'he appealed to our better angels,'" Delaney said.

Olivier Knox, the outgoing president of the White House Correspondents Association, said he’d considered hiring either a musician or an author to deliver the speech at the event, which hands out scholarships as well as awards. He said he did not want the dinner to be about Trump this year. “This is not his dinner. It is ours and it should stay ours.”

This is the third consecutive year that the president skipped the nearly 100-year-old black-tie event. Trump said this month that he would not attend the dinner, telling reporters that it was “negative” and “boring."

Knox told NBC News the event needed a reset after decades of news organizations inviting celebrity guests.

“It was ‘oh my goodness I caught a glimpse of George Clooney,’” he said, adding that he had wanted the dinner to be about journalism again.

Knox opened his own speech with news of death threats he has received and sounded a note of introspection. “The news media is enormously powerful,” he acknowledged. “It deserves scrutiny and skepticism. Sometimes it deserves distrust, sometimes we do dumb things.”

Bob Costantini, a Washington correspondent with Westwood One radio, said the last minute edict by Trump to stop his staff from attending had left some scrambling to fill seats and that while he had enjoyed Chernow’s speech, he still wanted to see a comedian return.

The dinner, held at the Washington Hilton Hotel where former President Ronald Reagan was shot, is just one of numerous festivities held on the weekend.

Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer was spotted working events with a camera crew as part of his new role as a reporter for the entertainment show “Extra.”

Earlier on Saturday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway and the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, all separately mingled at a garden brunch for veterans hosted by a group including Tammy Haddad, a Washington fixture on the business and social scene.

Chatting with the media next to tables full of quiche and crepes, served with strawberry lemonade, Conway also commented on the ban. “The president is very pro-press,” she said, adding that he was in Wisconsin to deliver his message directly to the American people.

On his way out of the event, held at the former home of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Rosenstein was asked by a guest what he’s going to do after he leaves the justice department. “Looking for a job,” he responded.

When asked by NBC News if he was disobeying the president by attending the brunch, Rosenstein joked: “What’s he going to do, fire me?”