WASHINGTON – One night each year, Washington celebrates itself. The town’s bureaucracy gets primed and polished, mingles till midnight and rolls out a red carpet for the likes of Martha Stewart, Idina Menzel and Michael Bloomberg.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” President Barack Obama joked on Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s 101st dinner.
With the president attending each year, the event is meant to celebrate the work of the White House press corps, its devotion to press freedom and the past year in coverage of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In his remarks, running 22 minutes, Obama left no facet of Washington unscathed, targeting members of Congress, presidential hopefuls and the press itself with piercing jokes.
The fast-graying president joked about himself too, acknowledging his reputation on Capitol Hill as arrogant, rumors over his religious faith and the toll the Oval Office has taken on his appearance.
“I t ‘ s no wonder that people keep pointing out how the presidency has aged me,” Obama said. “I look so old, [House Speaker] John Boehner has already invited [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to speak at my funeral.”
He was followed by Cecily Strong, a comedian on NBC’s Saturday Night Live and the fourth woman ever chosen to entertain the annual event.
Strong mentioned strained relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government among a short list of top challenges facing the White House.
“Our relationship will be better in the next administration, just as soon as Israel makes a generous donation to the Clinton Foundation,” Strong quipped, referring to allegations that former president Bill Clinton’s foundation received large, politically controversial donations from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
Hillary, Obama and Netanyahu shared the heat with everyone from Donald Trump to Democratic presidential contender Martin O’Malley, from Michele Bachmann to CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin. All the major broadcast news organizations were roasted, and Strong gave a shout-out to all the print reporters “bussing the tables.”
This was Obama’s seventh correspondent’s dinner, and he delivered a traditional speech poking fun at the newsmakers and reporters of the day. But the dinner itself has become a controversial affair, with some journalists questioning the wisdom of partying with the subjects of their reports.
Before and after the dinner, some of the largest US news organizations hold receptions and parties in honor of themselves and their contacts. They have their own red carpets, where US Ambassador Samantha Power and former secretary Madeleine Albright banter with CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, with stars of HBO’s Veep and the occasional White House correspondent.
Only briefly at the dinner itself is White House coverage a topic of focus, though the association holds several events in the week before the dinner highlighting its work throughout the year.
Earlier in the week, DC-based publication Politico released a survey of the White House press corps that showed that, of those correspondents who have covered several presidencies, 65 percent consider Obama the least press-friendly.
Closing his roast on a serious note, Obama spoke directly to those concerns, offering praise for the Fourth Estate and asserting the need for a strong press in democratic systems of government.
“Investigative journalism; explanatory journalism; journalism that exposes corruption and injustice and gives a voice to the different, the marginalized, the voiceless - that’s power,” Obama said, closing his speech.
“It’s a privilege. It’s as important to America’s trajectory - to our values, our ideals - than anything that we could do in elected office.”
“These journalists and so many others view their work as more than just a profession but as a public good, an indispensable pillar of our society,” he continued. “So I want to give a toast to them. I raise a glass to them and all of you, with the words of the American foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson: ‘It is not the fact of liberty, but the way in which liberty is exercised, that ultimately determines whether liberty itself survives.’”