WASHINGTON — Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Ron Chernow deftly took on President Donald Trump’s war against journalism and facts at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on Saturday night.
“Now I’m delighted to make a spirited case tonight for the First Amendment. We now have to fight hard for basic truths we once took for granted,” Chernow said.
He added later in his speech, at present, “a rising tide of misinformation masquerading as news threatens to make a mockery of the First Amendment.”
Trump, who routinely calls stories he doesn’t like “fake news” and accuses journalists of being “enemies of the people,” is not the first president to not like his press, Chernow said. It’s more than that.
Turns out the author of the Alexander Hamilton biography inspiring the famous musical can also deliver zingers aimed at Trump, a demonstration of the perfected art of the put-down.
The dinner took a turn for the better this year. By the time the Obama administration ended, the dinner was a spectacle, more about celebrities than the working press covering this town and the officials and staffers and operatives who make the news.
Trump has skipped all three of these annual dinners since becoming president. In a fit of something, a few days before the dinner, Trump ordered his administration members not to attend the Saturday night black tie affair.
Democratic-oriented show-business celebrities have lost interest in this dinner in the Trump era, and the networks have stopped bringing in casts from their hit television shows to populate some of the prime seats in the giant ballroom of the Washington Hilton.
Still, the room was packed. Without Trump and devoid of flashy celebs, the dinner of the association, marking its 105th year, was a celebration of the First Amendment.
This dinner also served as a course correction for the association when it comes to the featured speaker. Last year, comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine was higher on snark than on whip-smart biting political wit.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Olivier Knox from Sirius XM — who campaigned for retooling the dinner long before Wolf’s ill fated jokes — invited Chernow.
“My main theme here tonight is that relations between presidents and the press are inevitably tough, almost always adversarial. But they don’t need to be steeped in venom,” Chernow said.
Though Trump wasn’t there to hear it — he scheduled a campaign rally instead in Green Bay, Wis. — Chernow delivered a history lesson.
Said Chernow, “Campaigns against the press don’t get your face carved into Mount Rushmore, for when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy.”
•”As you all know, on Tuesday the president let it be known that he wanted members of his administration to stay away from this dinner and at first I was puzzled by this news.
“But then I learned that a rumor was circulating in Washington that I was going to be reading aloud from the redacted portions of the Mueller report and everything was explained.”
•“Of course there’s been some squawking from the comedians, and I’m sorry about that. Frankly I thought that those folks would have a little more of a sense of humor about my selection. After all they are comedians.
“But we need them now more than ever. During this surreal interlude in American life, as Will Rogers once observed, people are taking their comedians seriously and their politicians as a joke. And that certainly describes our topsy-turvy moment.”
•Alluding to a news story about Trump’s visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon — and his view that Washington is missing out on a marketing opportunity, Chernow said, “Now as best I can tell Washington committed only one major blunder as a president.
“He failed to put his name on Mount Vernon and thereby bungled an early opportunity at branding clearly deficient in the art of the deal. The poor man had to settle for the lowly title of father of his country. A very sad story.”
•Playing off Trump saying he wanted to keep immigrants out because the country was “full,” Chernow quipped, “Our founders were highly literate people and perhaps none more so than one Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant.
“An immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full. I frankly don’t know why they let the guy in. Clearly somebody had slipped up at the southern border.”