Then and Now: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Each year, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is one of Washington, D.C.’s most anticipated events. Hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association, the dinner benefits scholarships for gifted students studying journalism and is a time-honored tradition dating back to 1921. At the dinner, the news media who make up the association, Washington insiders, and even the president himself come together for one night.

This year, things will be a little different. With President Trump excusing himself from the dinner and choosing instead to hold a rally in Harrisburg, PA, it won’t quite measure up to the dinners of the past. While he isn’t the first president to miss the annual event, I can’t help but see this year’s dinner as a metaphor for what’s wrong with Washington—partisanship run amuck.

I remember my first WHCD back in 1997, a staggering 20 years ago—it was certainly a radically different time. A couple of my buddies and I were lucky enough to get tickets through a friend of ours who was serving in the Clinton Administration. This kind bipartisan gesture alone is a relic of a different time. Back then, both political parties held mutual respect for one another and we viewed the dinner as an opportunity to socialize across the aisle. Things are very different these days as this respect has progressively diminished and today we live in a Washington where hyper-partisan attitudes permeate everything.

The WHCD used to be an event focused on bringing political powerhouses together—an evening of comradery between fellow Washingtonians and a celebration of objective journalism and its importance. It wasn’t about how many Hollywood celebrities were in attendance or about one politician championing a particular news network. It wasn’t about trying to catch someone (likely a political enemy) on your cell phone doing something embarrassing so you could post it and let the Twitter-verse take it from there. And it certainly wasn’t about getting the best selfie to add to your Instagram feed.

It might be impossible to fully grasp how this trend of hyper-partisanship has affected Washington until the dust settles over the next year or so, but the question remains—are the times of old too far gone? For me, the Correspondents’ dinner is a microcosm of Washington, D.C. and politics writ large. If we “fix” the Dinner, we “fix” the District. What the WHCD and this city need are a return to mutual respect, a focus on working to find compromise across party lines instead of exploiting differences, and thoughtful reflection on what makes our democratic system so great. If we—the most powerful city in the world—can’t fix a social gathering, good luck ever getting to 60 votes in the Senate.

This change will not happen overnight, but I am hopeful and optimistic that it can happen. It will take the cooperation of both parties to make it possible and it won’t it be easy, but it will be worth it. I want to see a White House Correspondents’ Dinner where those in the pursuit of real journalism, not partisan muck racking, and our most revered politicians take the chance to talk to those from the other side of the aisle and focus on what politics is all about—creating and enacting policies that benefit the citizens of this great nation. A nation most, if not all, of us came to Washington to serve. As goes the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, so goes Washington politics.