Donald Trump’s presidency didn’t have much to recommend it, but if there was one thing I grudgingly liked, it was the fact that he consistently opted out of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: the annual gala in which politicians and reporters drop any pretense of being adversaries and spend the night kissing each other’s asses in front of an audience of bemused B-list celebrities. When Trump first snubbed the affair, the absence of a real, live president at the dinner slightly deflated its balloon of self-regard. Then Covid-19 decimated the D.C. social scene and diminished the yearly fête further—one of the pandemic’s few positive outcomes.
But as elite discourse pushes a premature declaration of victory over Covid, so too has the WHCD defiantly revived itself as a symbol that the good times are back. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah has been booked to tell the jokes that everyone will chortle over at first, then complain about later. Page Six has promised that Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson will be in attendance. The only thing that’s currently in doubt—and threatening the bounce-back narrative—is whether President Biden will attend. And the fact that this is a cause of speculation and consternation has, sadly, given the WHCD something it should never have: high stakes.
At issue is the administration’s overall approach to pandemic messaging as the midterms approach, which, as I noted last week, essentially boils down to projecting frozen-grin optimism while shuddering with gale-force anxiety behind the scenes. One White House source told Politico that the president’s inner circle was still watching the course of the pandemic with some trepidation. But, he said, “they’re like, ‘We don’t know if this is something to be worried about or not.’ … But you can’t tell the public that.”
Why is the WHCD a complicating factor in all of this? Because a few weeks ago, Washington played host to a similar gala called the Gridiron Dinner, a slightly more exclusive confab between Beltway reporters and politicians, who get together to spend a night telling bad jokes to one another. (So it’s like the WHCD without KimPe.) This year, however, the Gridiron Dinner took its commitment to unfunniness to savage new heights when it became a superspreader event that propelled infections across Washington, D.C. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that WHCD organizers have taken their cues from the Gridiron disaster and will have more stringent vaccine and testing requirements, as the dinner “is shaping up to be a major test of whether large gatherings can be safely held at this stage of the pandemic.” Cool, but maybe the WHCD should not be such a test?
This thought seems to have crossed the minds of some at the White House. Although the WHCD attendees will be required to prove they’ve been vaccinated and present a same-day negative Covid test, The Washington Post reported, “some White House officials and experts worry that those measures are insufficient and that this weekend’s events may become another high-profile superspreader event, said three administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.” It’s very interesting to hear people in the know declare these precautionary measures insufficient, considering that such measures are being taken almost nowhere else in America right now. Perhaps the reason no one was “authorized to discuss the issue” was because of the uncomfortable questions that might be raised by such a discussion.
Adding further confetti to this parade of mixed messages, Anthony Fauci announced Wednesday that the United States was “certainly right now out of the pandemic phase.” But here’s another thing that’s out right now: Fauci’s attendance at the WHCD. As CNN reported, Fauci had been “invited to attend as a guest of ABC News and had planned on going,” but opted to “abandon those plans … because of an individual assessment of his own personal risk.” If you’re wondering what question was next on the minds of the Beltway press corps, Politico Playbook has you covered: “The question on our minds now: Will President JOE BIDEN go forward with his own plans to attend the dinner—disagreeing with his chief medical adviser in the process?”
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Thus, whether or not Biden attends the dinner has become newsworthy. What will it say, after all, if Biden shows fear in the face of the pandemic he’s declaring over and stays home? What will it say if Biden goes to the dinner and gets sick? Is he even allowed to wear a mask, or will that provoke the pack of reporters who will now be hanging on his every move? This has all become an extreme test of presidential judgment, which is something that the WHCD is simply too ridiculous to sustain.
Of course, what will it matter if the president catches Covid-19? He has access to the best medical care in the world. In general, most of the wealthy and well-connected people who attend the dinner can say the same. Of course, that leaves out the small army of service-sector and hospitality workers who will be on hand, keeping canapés flowing and drinks refilled. As Axios reported on Thursday, the event’s Covid precautions don’t apply to them. Is there a plan to provide cutting-edge care to them should this party become a superspreader? For a gathering that includes so many people fervidly obsessed with “optics,” it’s pretty remarkable that so few understand what a bad look this is.