Although most of comedian Michelle Wolf’s jokes at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner were quite funny, I couldn’t help but cringe when she waxed crude about abortion ("[Mike Pence] thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you got to get that baby out of there.") or when she threatened to masturbate in front of everybody ("[#MeToo is] probably the reason I'm here. They were like, 'A woman's probably not going to jerk off in front of anyone, right?' And to that I say, 'Don't count your chickens.'"). Her most offensive jokes stroke a discordant tone for me not because they were offensive but rather because they just weren’t that clever: They were crafted for their shock value and, as far as comedy goes, that always feels more hackneyed than hilarious to me.
But, I’m neither comedian nor comedy expert, so let’s put aside our comedy report cards and address what has come to represent the bulk of the criticism endured by Wolf in the wake of her performance: That she somehow ruined the spirit of the night and made those in the room feel uncomfortable.
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it “a disgrace.” Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt said it “mocked the values of civil society.” NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell said Wolf “grossly insulted” many of those in the room.
To that I say: Good for Wolf.
As someone who bathed in the waters of Washington for over a decade, I can safely report to all Americans that, in fact, you want every single person sitting in the Washington Hilton ballroom on the night of the White House Correspondents' Dinner to be uncomfortable. The country is better off that way.
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Let me explain.
Over the past few decades, Americans’ attitudes about those in Washington — the president, congressmen, senators, journalists, lobbyists, you name it — have continued to plummet. Hardly anyone expects much of their elected officials, fewer still look to Washington for role models and, to top things off, only a middling number of Americans trust the Fourth Estate to accurately and honestly sort through the entire mess.
And, yet, at the same time, official Washington has curiously boomed, enjoying a robust economy that has easily outpaced the rest of the country. Those who ostensibly came to Washington to do good have done enormously well… for themselves. The per capita income in our nation’s capital is 25 percent higher than the national average. Many top reporters and journalists are splashed across the town’s society pages and enjoy princely salaries. Lobbyists’ and consultants are rewarded handsomely for the harvest they reap. Politicians enjoy great electoral stability thanks to comfortably drawn congressional districts.
Those who ostensibly came to Washington to do good have done enormously well… for themselves.
And, as a result, official D.C. is fat, happy and comfortable. And, so, there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo — which is why Wolf’s remarks caused the 2,000+ people in that ballroom Saturday night to sit stone-faced in their gowns and tuxedos.
But most Americans outside of the Beltway will tell you that the status quo in Washington isn’t working for them. And perhaps one way to begin changing that is to make those inside the Beltway a little more nervous and uneasy, since complacency and failure tend to go hand in hand.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders should be called out by Wolf and others for her obfuscations from the podium. President Donald Trump should be called out by Wolf and others for his poor handling of issues related to race. And journalists should be called out by Wolf and others for — to quote Wolf — the disingenuousness of their outrage.
"I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you,” said Wolf. “He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you're profiting off of him.”
The notion that politicians', lobbyists' and journalists' precious sensibilities and egos should be coddled and protected is exactly what made Washington so divorced from the people it’s supposed to serve in the first place.
These are all accurate and worthwhile critiques of official Washington (and they’re also why Wolf didn’t need tasteless abortion jokes to make them). The notion that politicians', lobbyists' and journalists' precious sensibilities and egos should be coddled and protected is exactly what made Washington so divorced from the people it’s supposed to serve in the first place. And the fact that Wolf was dinged for not properly respecting the people in the room is a perfect reflection of just how backward we have this whole democracy thing.
Wolf’s full-throated critique comes at a time when politicians not only abhor the independent inquiries of a free press, but they actively avoid it. President Barack Obama’s attitude towards reporters caused USA Today’s Susan Page to call him the “most dangerous” president to the press than any other in history. Hillary Rodham Clinton wore her distrust for reporters as a virtual badge of honor. And President Trump has gone his entire presidency without a challenging sit-down interview while simultaneously maligning the Fourth Estate at every turn.
Wolf’s 19-minute routine, then, felt like the only comeuppance served to anyone in Washington in quite some time.
And that, to me, is the real joke.
Patrick Gavin is a journalist and filmmaker and the director of the 2015 feature length documentary, “Nerd Prom: Inside Washington’s Wildest Week.” He covered Washington’s politics and people for Politico from 2009 to 2015 and is currently at work on a documentary about the Trump resistance movement.