The historian Ron Chernow summarized the mood of the 2019 White House Correspondents Association dinner in one sentence.
“We now have to fight hard for basic truths that we once took for granted,” he said.
Chernow, the author of the Alexander Hamilton biography that inspired the hit musical “Hamilton,” was invited in place of a comedian. The historian was well received as he alternated between clever jokes and a call to arms for democracy.
He only mentioned President Donald Trump by name once, but the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric came up repeatedly.
“When you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy,” Chernow said.
He also said that everyone in attendance is part of “Team USA, not members of enemy camps.”
His advice for the press? He quoted billionaire investor Warren Buffett saying “always take the high road. It’s far less crowded there.”
Chernow was not the only change at the black tie gala this year. Trump snubbed the event for the third straight year, and he instructed administration officials and aides to stay home as well.
News organizations that had bought tables for the annual fundraiser and invited White House aides suddenly had some seats to give away to others.
At cocktail parties before the sit-down dinner, several journalists commented that the event felt less tense without the presence of White House press officials who are torn between their day-to-day jobs and the President’s anti-media attacks.
A small number of Trump aides, including counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, did attend some of the social events that took place before Saturday night’s dinner, however.
Conway, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and comedian Jay Leno all posed for photos at a Saturday morning garden brunch that sought to raise money for veterans.
Later in the day, at the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, White House Correspondents Association President and Chief DC Correspondent for SiriusXM Olivier Knox discussed his effort to refocus the dinner on First Amendment values.
He said “we can’t lose track of attacks on the press in a global context,” noting the way that the term “fake news” has been embraced by politicians in other countries to censor news outlets.
Knox – whose speech was televised live by CNN – also urged the listening public to support local and regional news outlets that are struggling due to changes in business models and consumer habits.
After the presentation of several awards, it was Chernow’s turn.
He cracked a few jokes and said America needs comedians “now more than ever, during this surreal interlude.”
Chernow put the Trump years into historical context. He said George Washington, like “every future president,” felt maligned by the press, “but he never generalized that against a vendetta against the institution.”
There was applause for that line – a clear critique of Trump’s sweeping “enemy of the people” rhetoric.
But there was also applause when he said relations between the press and the president are “inevitably tough, almost always adversarial, but they don’t need to be steeped in venom.”
Our best presidents, he said, handled the press with “grace, charm, candor and even humor.”
Chernow ended by paraphrasing a quip from Mark Twain: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often – and for the same reason.”