Comedian Michelle Wolf's biting routine at Saturday‘s 2018 White House Correspondents' Association dinner has triggered one of Washington's most recurring conversations: Is one night of pomp and politics worth the headaches that usually follow?
Almost immediately after Wolf, best known as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,“ left the stage at the Washington Hilton, those who pack into the James Brady press room on a daily basis began to distance themselves from her performance. A number of journalists deemed her act too caustic.
"The spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn. Reporters who work with her daily appreciate that @presssec was there," NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell wrote on Twitter.
At its core, the dinner is supposed to be a celebration of the First Amendment, an opportunity to laud the young journalists who have won the association's scholarships, and a place to applaud the current journalists whose work illuminates the public's understanding of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Maintaining such a focus, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker said, might require ditching the comedy act.
"I would vote to leave the comedy acts to comedy shows and stick to journalism at journalism dinners," Baker wrote on Twitter in a reply to comedian Kathy Griffin.
"First Amendment would probably be OK without the dinner," CNBC's John Harwood added.
Controversies emanating from the evening are nothing new.
In 2016, comedian Larry Wilmore ended his jokes by saluting President Barack Obama, who was attending his final WHCD in office, with "Yo, Barry, you did it, my n----. You did it." After the hand wringing over his use of the N word, Wilmore defended his decision, saying he was trying to take back a word that had been used to denigrate black men for centuries. In 2006, “Colbert Report“ host Stephen Colbert stayed in character as he scorched President George W. Bush and his administration. Years later, Colbert said people still ask him what Bush, who was seated just steps away, told him after the routine.
But Saturday was supposed to be different.
In 2017, President Donald Trump became the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the gathering (although Reagan, who was recovering from an assassination attempt, still called in) and not a single Trump White House aide attended. This year, though, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sat at the head table, and counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters beforehand that Trump encouraged his staff to attend.
"He encourages us to have fun," Conway told CNN before the festivities began.
Instead, White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp and her husband, conservative activist Matt Schlapp, walked out early.
"Tonight’s #WHCD was a disgrace," former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Twitter.
While Wolf certainly had tough words for Trump, her jokes about Sanders' appearance and comparison to a "Uncle Tom" for white women left many journalists uneasy.
"That @PressSec sat and absorbed intense criticism of her physical appearance, her job performance, and so forth, instead of walking out, on national television, was impressive," New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman wrote on Twitter, a feeling many of her colleagues echoed.
For all the early recriminations, some liberal commentators wondered whether journalists understood that the evening was intended to be in jest, and that the administration remains deeply unpopular.
"I don’t think you fully appreciate the resentment towards media for normalizing the WH’s behavior," long time Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines wrote on Twitter, in reply to CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Baker. "There’a [sic] no greater example than Sanders mocking you daily for the whole country to watch."
Comedians have long complained that pleasing the audience in the Washington Hilton is a near impossible task, leading Griffin to suggest if it would be better for everyone just to have another "boring" evening.
"If you want to focus on the journalism, do a boring awards show. Journalism is all about the 1st Amendment," Griffin wrote on Twitter. "If you don't see the import of what @michelleisawolf did tonight, then you don't get it."