The White House press corps’ annual gala returned on Saturday night along with the roasting of Washington, the journalists who cover it and the man at the helm: US President Joe Biden.
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, featured Biden as the first president in six years to accept an invitation. Donald Trump shunned the event while in office.
The premier event for news media in Washington, the correspondents’ dinner mixed journalists such as CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid with celebrities Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Brooke Shields, Caitlyn Jenner, Drew Barrymore and Martha Stewart. Among the large gathering of government officials and other prominent figures was Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Scroll through the gallery above to see who turned up on the red carpet.
“Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year,” Biden told an audience of 2,600, among them journalists, government officials and celebrities. “Now that would really have been a real coup.”
The president took the opportunity to test out his comedic chops, making light of the criticism he has faced in his 18 months in office while taking aim at his predecessor, the Republican Party and members of the press.
“I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have,” Biden said to the Hilton ballroom.
He also made light of the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan, which has become the right’s stand-in for swearing at the president.
“Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon,” Biden said, causing an uproar of laughter among the crowd. “He’s having a really good year. I’m happy for him.”
As far as roasting the Republican Party, he said, “There’s nothing I can say about the GOP that Kevin McCarthy hasn’t already put on tape.”
In addition to speeches from Biden and comedian Trevor Noah, the hours-long event had taped comedic skits that included late-night TV hosts, comedians and even Biden himself.
“Thank you for having me here,” Noah said to Biden. “And I was a little confused on why me, but then I was told that you get your highest approval ratings when a biracial African guy is standing next to you.”
While the majority of the speech was filled with cutting jabs, Biden did make note of the important role journalism has played in American democracy, especially in the past decade.
“I mean this from the bottom of my heart, that you, the free press matter more than you ever did in the last century,” he said. “You are the guardians of the truth.”
The dinner had other serious moments, with tributes to pioneer journalists of colour and aspiring student reporters, as well as a dedication to the journalists detained, injured or killed during the coverage of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Accompanied by the first lady, the president came to the event while trying to strike a careful balance with the nation fatigued by the pandemic yet facing an uptick in infections. The ongoing national threat has struck closer to home for Biden: Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive last week and Dr Anthony Fauci skipped the dinner as a precaution.
The US was experiencing a Covid-19 case spike from a highly contagious subvariant of Omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Still, virus deaths and hospitalisations were near, or at, pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier virus strains.
In the wake of the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens in attendance, including members of Congress, Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for Covid-19. The White House Correspondents’ Association said it was requiring same-day antigen testing for its dinner guests even before the Gridiron outbreak, then added a vaccination requirement.
Biden, 79, decided to pass up the meal but turn up later for the programme. While he planned to be masked when not speaking, a maskless president greeted award winners on the dais and could be seen smiling broadly during the evening.
The first correspondents’ dinner was held in 1921. Three years later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend and all have since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend every year of their presidencies, however, and Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 instalment — but called in from Camp David.
“The thing I think this shows is the restoration to the health of the relationship,” Harold Holzer, author of the book The Presidents vs. The Press and the director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York, said ahead of the dinner. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But that’s OK.”