NEW: President riffs on news networks, Jay-Z, hairdo
NEW: Obama shifts to somber note in talking about tragedies in Boston, Texas
NEW: Conan O'Brien comes up with dream D.C. movie cast
NEW: Kevin Spacey speaks as "House of Cards" character
President Barack Obama spared few from his zingers at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner – including himself.
He stepped to the podium as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” played as an introduction and told the audience, “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this – second term, baby.”
His advisers were “a little worried about the new rap entrance music,” and suggested that he kick off his speech with jokes at his own expense to “take himself down a peg.” But, the president responded, “after 4½ years, how many pegs are there left?”
Obama went for it anyway, joking about his appearance – “These days I look in the mirror and I gotta admit: I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be,” he said – and his recent “rookie mistakes,” one of which being his remark about California Attorney General Kamala Harris. At a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in California, Obama called Harris the country’s “best-looking attorney general.”
“As you can imagine, I got in trouble when I got back home,” Obama said. “Who knew (Attorney General) Eric Holder was so sensitive?”
Then there was his pitiful basketball score at the White House Easter Egg Roll, and the kerfuffle over Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba.
“Maybe I have lost a step, but some things are beyond my control,” he said. “For example, this whole controversy about Jay-Z going to Cuba. It’s unbelievable. I got 99 problems, and now Jay-Z’s one.”
The second term can take its toll, he went on, quipping that he’s tried taking inspiration from his wife, Michelle – but bangs don’t really work on the commander-in-chief, as photos displayed on the screen proved. He’s also been advised to take a page from Michael Douglas’ performance in 1995’s “The American President.”
Obama asked Douglas, who was in the audience, “What’s your secret? Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? Might that have something to do with it? I don’t know.”
While he was airing out his frustrations, the president acknowledged the political bickering in Congress. “It’s simple: we need to make progress on some important issues,” he said. “Take the sequester: Republicans fell in love with this thing. And now they can’t stop talking about how much they hate it – it’s like we’re trapped in a Taylor Swift album.”
The press was also included in his standup routine. The History Channel, whose depiction of Satan in its TV miniseries “The Bible” left viewers claiming that it resembled the president, wasn’t in attendance, likely because of that incident, Obama said.
“Of course, that never kept Fox News from showing up – they actually thought the comparison was not fair to Satan,” he joked. To CNN, he said he admired the “commitment to cover all sides of the story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate,” while he commended the “nice change of pace” at MSNBC. The network now has his former political adviser David Axelrod working for them, whereas “MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod.”
Although he kept the audience laughing, the president made sure to address the tragedies that have happened over the past few weeks.
“These have been some hard days for too many of our citizens,” he said, closing out his speech. “As we gather here tonight, our thoughts are not far from the people of Boston, the people of West,Texas, and the families in the Midwest who are coping with some terrible floods. So we’ve had some difficult days.”
Yet through the efforts of first and all those who helped those during their time of need, “even when the days seem darkest, we have seen humanity shine at its brightest.”
As the invited guests arrived at Saturday’s dinner, they were curious about the tone Obama would strike in light of the headlines. But with TBS’ late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien tasked with leading the night’s ceremony, at least a little comedy was a certainty. The “Conan” comedian said when his role was announced in February that guests could expect “(two) minutes of jokes, then 40 minutes on public employee pension reform.” O’Brien first hosted the Correspondents’ Dinner in 1995.
Obama, who attended the gala for the fifth time Saturday, has also become a pro at landing some of the night’s biggest punchlines. The president quipped at last year’s dinner, which was hosted by ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, that his hair had grayed so much since taking office he was just a few years out from looking like Morgan Freeman.
The Beltway gala, also known as the “nerd prom,” sees Washington’s newsmakers stroll a red carpet that’s also filled with press and stars from across entertainment. Attendees included fashion influencers like Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and sports stars like Olympic champ Gabrielle Douglas and Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware, who suffered a horrific leg break during an NCAA tournament game last month.
There were also enough famous faces to have the night mistaken for an awards ceremony. Kerry Washington, Rebel Wilson, Katy Perry, Sofia Vergara, John Legend, Elizabeth Banks, Psy, Michael J. Fox and Matthew Perry were all in attendance. With the president being a professed fan of Showtime’s “Homeland,” perhaps it wasn’t surprising to see stars Claire Danes and Morena Baccarin there as well.
Some of the night’s best lines actually came from Kevin Spacey, who participated in a comedic video billed as “secret footage” showing how the Correspondents’ Dinner comes together.
Spacey, as his “House of Cards” character, Majority Whip Frank Underwood, wheeled and dealed with both press and politicians.
“Washington and Hollywood: Some new faces, some old faces, and some new faces on old faces. And I do sympathize, Conan, and not just for that backstabbing Leno, but having to host. It must be so hard to write jokes about a town that already is one,” Spacey said in the spoof. “Democrats, Republicans, the White House, Congress – you all came together to make this spoof. That’s what real bipartisanship looks like. I may lie, cheat and intimidate to get what I want, but at least I get the job done. So I hope some of you were taking notes.”
O’Brien’s routine was well-received, as he closed the night by riffing on the “nerd prom” theme, pointing out how much the event resembled a high school cafeteria. With so many stars there on shows that draw their drama from the Beltway, O’Brien did an imaginary casting for a “major TV miniseries about the power players in Washington.” Vice President Joe Biden would be played by Bob Barker, while Speaker of the House John Boehner would be played by “tan mom.”
When O’Brien focused his humor on the president, he nailed him on his jobs strategy: “As you all know, the president is hard at work creating jobs. Since he was first elected, the number of popes has doubled. The number of ‘Tonight Show’ hosts has tripled.” But the comedian also took a moment for reflection as he brought up the Boston Marathon bombing, thanking the president “for visiting that great city and helping those people begin to heal.”
The dinner, which raises money for journalism scholarships, was first established in 1920 with the intent to increase communication between the president and the press. It was a men-only event until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy said he wouldn’t attend unless women were invited as well.