Correspondents Gala offers political normality despite COVID

WASHINGTON — Much of Washington is poised to celebrate like it did in 2019, before the coronavirus, when the biggest risk at the annual White House Press Corps Gala was jokes that ruffled too many political feathers.

After the pandemic wiped out the event in 2020 and 2021, the Saturday night White House Correspondents Association dinner returns, with Joe Biden becoming the first incumbent to attend in six years after Donald Trump shunned it in office.

Comedy is back, too, with The Daily Show host Trevor Noah headlining. Celebrities are, too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected, and comedy studio Funny or Die is co-sponsoring an after-party. The event also attracts a large crowd of government officials and other prominent figures.

“To see the return of the President of the United States and the return of dinner, I think, signals more than a pause in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of The Presidents vs. The Press. “I’m sure we can talk again.


“I think this relationship — even if it’s a one-night thing where jokes are exchanged and people make fun of each other and each other — is a very healthy thing.”

It feels like a modicum of normalcy is returning to the country’s capital, but it’s also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, is skipping dinner “due to my individual assessment of my personal risk”.

That raised questions about whether Biden, 79, should go. The President will skip the meal and appear later for the program. He plans to be masked when not speaking.

Mentioning the dinner this week during a speech about Russia’s war on Ukraine, Biden said, “I’ve always had respect for the press, but I can’t tell you how much respect I have watching them in these zones where they are under fire.”


“Imagine if we didn’t get that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s attendance schedule “stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on an almost daily basis, but also never attended dinner.” Trump happily boycotted the event, at times branding the media “enemies of the people.”

Dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and Biden’s cabinet, as well as journalists, tested positive for COVID-19 following the Gridiron Club’s recent press dinner in Washington.

The White House is stressing the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce the severe consequences of the virus by 90% in those most at risk. Still, Psaki said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it’s possible that he could, like any American, test positive for COVID.”


That’s because the US is seeing a surge in COVID cases from a highly contagious subvariant of Omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Though well below the nationwide maximum of over 800,000 cases per day during the peak of the Omicron wave earlier this year, the current statistics are in light of the increasing availability of at-home COVID-19 tests, the results of which may not be reported to public health officials , probably too low .

The White House Correspondents Association said it would require same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees ahead of the Gridiron outbreak. A vaccination requirement has since been added for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity of more than 2,600 and is fully booked.

Despite the recent wave of COVID-19 cases, viral deaths and hospitalizations are near or at pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving to be less severe than previous strains of the virus. In the US, just over 300 people are dying from the virus each day, up from more than 2,600 daily earlier this year — with about 1,600 hospital admissions per day and down from more than 21,000 daily in January.


The Correspondents’ Dinner made its debut in 1921. Calvin Coolidge was the first President to attend three years later, and since then all but Trump have been. However, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon chose not to attend every year of their presidencies, and Ronald Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment — but called in from Camp David.

“I think that shows the health of the relationship being restored,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still unruly, there are still tense moments. But that’s okay.”

After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the following year’s event was staffed by historian Ron Chernow. The return of celebrities this time evokes memories of President Barack Obama’s administration, when the likes of George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis were in attendance.


As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedy video with HBO’s “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which caused big laughs at the correspondents’ dinner. White House speechwriter Vinay Reddy and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon were working on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, tapping into material from a variety of people inside and outside of government.

Already admitting he was trying to lower expectations, Psaki said the speech was “not funny at all. I’m just kidding.” Attempts at humor by the president can be difficult, however.

At the 2011 dinner, Obama speared a disaffected Trump—in his presence—over Trump’s fictional claims about the then-president’s birth certificate. Obama concluded by reflecting on the fact that Trump would one day take his job, saying, “He would certainly bring some change to the White House,” as the banquet room screens flashed a parodic image of the grand facade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which featured a Trump logo, gold pillars, etc. digital clock and a sign that read “Hotel, Casino, Golf Course, Presidential Suite.”


That proved prophetic, as Trump naturally succeeded Obama — although the overhauls he eventually brought to the presidency did not result in his name being added to the White House.


Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Correspondents Gala offers political normality despite COVID

Jaclyn Diaz

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