Although he was MIA for the third time as president — the first among the last 15 US presidents never to have attended the event while in office — Donald Trump lingered on the sidelines though jibes on Twitter and by driving away almost all of the movie, TV, sports and business celebrities who had once clamoured to attend.
Fancy gowns: check. Tuxedos: check. Surf and turf on the menu: Also check.
All the usual elements were there at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night in the United States, but much of the glamour and some of the fun was missing.
There was no president in attendance for the gala event, virtually no celebrities and no comedian for the first time in decades. Sensitive to President Trump's reaction to being made fun of last year, the WHCA decided not to tempt the presidential temper again. The organisation dropped the after-dinner comedy, a staple stretching back to the Bob Hope era.
Instead, the 3000 or so attendees in the subterranean Washington Hilton ballroom got . . . a lecture from a historian.
As if that wasn't entertainment enough, Trump sniped from the sidelines. As he has each year since his inauguration, he counterprogrammed the dinner by staging a reelection rally, this one in Green Bay, Wisconsin. "Fake news. They are fakers!" he taunted, pointing at the press assembled in the Resch Center arena, amid chants of "CNN sucks".
In all, the once-glitzy dinner, a staple of spring in Washington, looked more like a fancy journalism-industry dinner (albeit one televised live by three cable TV networks), rather than the self-indulgent, Hollywood-on-the-Potomac glamfest of yore.
Not that there was anything wrong with that, for some. "I've been here a couple times and it's certainly not as exciting as when you have the president here," said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (Republican), one of a handful of political types in attendance along with the journalists. "It's unfortunate that so many people, the president and people in his administration are not here, but it's still a great opportunity for so many people in the media and others to get together."
Although he was MIA for the third time as president — the first among the last 15 presidents never to have attended the event while in office — Trump was a lingering presence nonetheless. Despite sneering at the dinner as "boring and so negative" beforehand, he has managed to transform it in just a few years, both through passive and active measures.
Trump's election drove away almost all of the movie, TV, sports and business celebrities who had once clamoured to attend as the guests of news media organisations. This year, the big names were . . . there weren't really any. One boldfaced name, Jay Leno, went to a pre-dinner event Saturday morning but did not bother to attend the main event.
Trump also saw to it that none of his aides and advisers would enjoy the festivities, either. In another apparent paroxysm of peeve at those he calls "the enemy of the people," the president decreed on Tuesday that no one from his administration would be allowed to attend, marking perhaps the first time in history that a president has ordered federal employees not to go to a party.
The decree meant that senior Trump administration officials such as Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sarah Sanders — both of whom attended last year — were nowhere to be found this time around. Sanders attended the Wisconsin rally instead, where the president brought her up on stage. "Last year this night I was at a slightly different event" that was "not quite the best welcome," she said to the crowd. "So this is an amazing honour."
A few ex-Trumpites, including the president's former lawyer Ty Cobb, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, didn't get the memo and showed up.
Trump also effectively dictated the evening's entertainment too.
The White House Correspondents' Association decided to break with another tradition — the after-dinner comic — after Trump raged about last year's choice, Michelle Wolf. Comedians have skewered the president, the press and other powerful people in the room since at least 1944 (when Bob Hope's big zinger was, "The Republicans want to carry the South in the next election. They are going to run Rhett Butler as vice-president"). But comedy is apparently too dangerous for an organisation dedicated to free expression and the First Amendment.
The result was a Saturday night history lesson from Ron Chernow, author of voluminous and much-praised biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant.
In introductory remarks, WHCA president Olivier Knox of Sirius XM radio gave a brief but impassioned speech that took on Trump. He said he divided his 23-year career as a reporter into two parts: the time before Trump called news organisations "the enemy of the American people" in February 2017, and the period after, which has been marked by death threats and other harassment.
"It shouldn't need to be said to a roomful of people who understand the power of words, but ['enemy of the people'] isn't a pet name, a punchline or presidential," he said.
Chernow's gently witty and well-received speech skipped lightly over presidential relations with the press through the centuries, with a few shots at the current commander in chief.
George Washington, he noted, "failed to put his name on Mount Vernon and thereby bungled an early opportunity at branding," a reference to comments Trump made while visiting the first president's estate earlier this month. Chernow added that "like every great president, Washington felt maligned by the press but never generalised that into a vendetta."
Alexander Hamilton, he said, was "an immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full. I don't know why they let the guy in. Someone must have slipped up at the southern border."
Through the centuries, Chernow said, the press has been a bulwark of democracy, and presidential attempts to undermine it have invariably failed. "Campaigns against the press don't get your face carved into the rocks of Mount Rushmore, for when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy," he said.
Ticking off "a grand crusading tradition" of vigorous journalism — from Ida B. Wells to Ida Tarbell to Upton Sinclair to Woodward and Bernstein — he said, "This is a glorious tradition; you folks are part of it, and we can't have politicians trampling on it with impunity."
The comment drew a standing ovation.