The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) is an organization of journalists who cover the White House and the President of the United States. The WHCA was founded on February 25, 1914, by journalists in response to an unfounded rumor that a Congressional committee would select which journalists could attend press conferences of President Woodrow Wilson.
The WHCA’s annual dinner, begun in 1920, has become a Washington, D.C. tradition and is usually attended by the President and Vice President. The dinner is traditionally held on the evening of the last Saturday in April at the Washington Hilton. Obama’s appearance at the eighth such dinner of his presidency represented the apotheosis of a peculiarly American phenomenon.
Until 1962, the dinner was open only to men, even though WHCA’s membership included women. At the urging of Helen Thomas, President John F. Kennedy refused to attend the dinner unless the ban on women was dropped. Actually, JFK was the first president to deliver extended comic speeches.
Prior to World War II, the annual dinner featured singing between courses, a homemade movie and an hour-long, post-dinner show with big-name performers. Since 1983, however, the featured speaker has usually been a comedian, with the dinner taking on the form of a roast of the President and his administration.
The dinner also serves to honor young and veteran journalists alike with scholarships and awards. The proceeds from the lofty ticket prices for the event go toward funding these accolades. Tickets to the dinner — which are only available for purchase by WHCA members — cost $300 per person or $3,000 per table this year.
During his speech at the 2016 dinner, Barack Obama famously joked, “The end of the Republic has never looked better.” He hosted his last White House Correspondents’ Dinner on 30 April 2016. Ninety percent of his speech was just jokes about himself, the political climate and the guests. Very few people can afford using a mix like this, better tailored to David Letterman.
However, the real core of the speech was his departing statement, on the role of news media today. Words worth being quoted:
|“…At home and abroad, journalists like all of you engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens, and holding leaders accountable, and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth; and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.
The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. For this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.
And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever. Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require you shedding your objectivity. In fact, it is the essence of good journalism. It affirms the idea that the only way we can build consensus, the only way that we can move forward as a country, the only way we can help the world mend itself is by agreeing on a baseline of facts when it comes to the challenges that confront us all.
So this night is a testament to all of you who have devoted your lives to that idea, who push to shine a light on the truth every single day.”
Here is a well-conceived short description of the event: “President Obama ended his final Correspondents’ Dinner on his own terms. He told jokes aimed at the current presidential candidates, he skewered the room on race – a subject that he has shied away from throughout his presidency – and he was really funny. Overall, he remained true to himself, a hardnosed politician who never took himself too seriously and always told things like they were. In his final moments, leaving everything on the floor, he simply said, “Obama out.” He dropped the mic and received a well-deserved standing ovation.” (Niema Hulin)