Roasting the president

Last Saturday some 2,000 politicians, celebrities, journalists and assorted hangers-on dined on crabmeat terrine and chocolate truffles and belly-laughed at remarks delivered by President Barack Obama during the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.  Since 1920, the annual affair has been one of Washington’s premier soirees for reporters, politicians and, more recently, celebrities (the other such venue being the even older Gridiron dinner, first attended by Grover Cleveland).  Apparently, another “first” chalked up by our favorite POTUS is being the first sitting president to attend – in 1924.

In early 1914, the White House had announced that Woodrow Wilson would hold a series of regularly scheduled press conferences. Rumors were rife that a congressional committee would determine which journalists deserved invitations. Eleven concerned press corps members banded together to establish the White House Correspondents’ Association, tasked with “the promotion of the interests of those reporters and correspondents assigned to cover the White House.”

It turned out that the selection committee had indeed been no more than a rumor, so the WHCA became inactive for several years. In 1920 the group held its first dinner, and in 1924 Calvin Coolidge -who had excellent relations with the press and who indeed did hold regular and frequent press conferences- became the first president to attend. (Since then, every commander-in-chief has made at least one appearance during his tenure.) Thrown at the Old Arlington Hotel, the 1924 affair was an intimate gathering with just 50 guests—a far cry from more recent galas, which have packed 3,000 politicians, reporters, celebrities and elites, as well as the likes of, ahem, Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan,  into the Washington Hilton’s ballroom.

The practice of “roasting” the president came much later, so 1924 attendees wouldn’t have caught Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers or Groucho Marx poke fun at Silent Cal for his reticence. Guests in the 1920s and 1930s enjoyed singing between courses, movies and increasingly extravagant variety shows featuring well-known entertainers. The event took on a more somber tone during World War II, when rations streamlined meals and revelers traded their tuxedos for suits. Similarly, in several recent years the spirit of the event was dampened by recently occurred tragedies such as the Waco siege, the Columbine shooting spree or the Oklahoma City bombing.  Over the years the parade of celebrity performers became ever more impressive as the likes of Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Barbra Streisand appeared onstage. Since 1983 it has been standard practice to yearly select a leading comedian to emcee the program.

In Coolidge’s day, and indeed until 1962, the dinner was an all-male affair—even though the WHCA counted female members who paid equal dues. To protest the injustice, in March 1950 Dan Kimball, undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, hosted an event for women journalists who had been excluded from the annual bash. In 1962, at the urging of Helen Thomas, the first female White House correspondent, President Kennedy refused to attend until the ban on women was lifted. Thomas was named the first female president of the WHCA in 1975.

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