Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @deanofcomedy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Dean Obeidallah: To distract the public from the White House Correspondent's Dinner, Trump hosted a competing rally in Pennsylvania
And while some may have watched his rally, many listened as comedians and journalists defended diversity and free press, writes Obeidallah
Donald Trump so desperately didn’t want you to watch Saturday’s White House correspondents’ dinner, where a comedian and members of the media were expected to criticize him, that he held a competing rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
But if Trump thought by doing this he would distract us from watching the event or even lessen the jibes at his expense, he was wrong. Trump skipping the WHCD actually inspired an entire additional TV comedy special hosted by Samantha Bee. And Trump’s absence emboldened journalists to call out the president’s dangerous attacks on the First Amendment.
Some believe Trump scheduled his rally to compete with the dinner for the politically strategic reason of showing a contrast between his supporters and the WHCD “elite.” Maybe that’s part of it, but I say a bigger reason is Trump hates being ridiculed and needs to feel loved. Comedian Hasan Minhaj, “Daily Show” correspondent and the WHCD’s headliner, put it well: “He’s in Pennsylvania because he can’t take a joke.”
As I’ve noted before, Trump has long lashed out at comedians who ridicule him, even filing a $5 million lawsuit in 2013 against Bill Maher over the comedian’s joke that Trump was “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.” He later dismissed the suit. And, in October, Trump stunningly demanded that “Saturday Night Live” be canceled for poking fun at him.
So there was Trump Saturday night in Pennsylvania, surrounded by adoring fans and serving up the “best” of his campaign speeches, which the 44% of Americans who approve of his job so far as president likely enjoyed.
But the rest of America got to enjoy watching Trump get comically fileted by a host of comedians.
First, there was Minhaj, who did a fantastic job of mocking Trump while still reminding us of substantive political issues. Minhaj, who is Muslim, opened by going after Trump’s demonization of Muslims with jokes like, “My name is Hasan Minhaj, or as I’ll be known in a few weeks, #830287.” And later the comedian referred to Trump as “the orange man behind the Muslim ban.”
One of Minhaj’s best jokes harkened back to Russiagate, which Trump desperately wants to distract the public from. Minhaj noted that Trump does not drink alcohol and then joked, “Who is tweeting at 3 a.m. sober? Donald Trump, because it’s 10 a.m. in Russia. Those are business hours.”
And after changing gears, Minhaj then made a powerful point about why America was already great long before Trump became president: “Only in America can a first-generation Indian Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.”
But the comedic smackdown of Trump didn’t end with Minhaj. In fact, after Trump announced in February that he was skipping the WHCD, Samantha Bee announced a full one-hour show titled, “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” that also aired last night. Bee let Trump have it with even more zingers such as, “We are living in a golden age of journalism. Unfortunately, that’s partly due to a golden president who’s rumored to enjoy golden showers.”
And it wasn’t just Bee going after Trump. She brought out Will Ferrell as George W. Bush, who took a shot at Trump with his opening line, “How do you like me now?!” Ferrell even mocked Trump’s oddly long ties, joking: “A big long tie that goes past your mid-thigh does not mean what you think it means.”
But apart from comedy, Trump skipping the WHCD also had another impact on the event. It empowered journalists at the dinner to go after Trump’s attacks on the media. Perhaps this criticism would’ve been muted if Trump had attended, but instead he was at a rally in Pennsylvania trying to undermine the media.
As a result, we heard comments like this from famed reporter and author Bob Woodward: “Mr. President, the media is not fake news.”
And his sentiment was echoed by the head of the WHCD, Jeff Mason, who declared, “We cannot ignore the rhetoric that has been employed by the president about who we are and what we do. Freedom of the press is a building block of our democracy.”
He later added, “We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations, and we are not the enemy of the American people.”
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Saturday night was an incredible study in contrast. On one hand, there was Trump holding a rally where he tried to delegitimize our media and stir up fears of immigrants and Muslims. It was a speech that David Gergen, a man who has advised numerous presidents, described as “The most divisive speech I’ve ever heard from a sitting American president.”
And on the other hand, we had a group of comedians and journalists celebrating the diversity of our nation and the freedom of the press – two of the pillars of American democracy.
To me, the choice of which of these two truly represents the best of America could not be clearer.