The best news all weekend was Donald Trump’s tweeted decision to boycott the upcoming White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. He’s the first president to skip it since the wounded Ronald Reagan in 1981, but Reagan at least had a note from his doctor.
If Trump could show us a note from his shrink, it’d explain a lot of things. But failing that, we’re left to conclude that he’s simply loath to dine with “enemies of the people” (the demagogic label that he has borrowed from Soviet communists); that he hates the notion of poking fun at himself (since he has no discernable sense of humor); and that he’s terrified at the prospect of others poking fun at him (because his ego is thinner than an eggshell).
But actually, Trump’s decision to flee is the best thing that could’ve happened to the dinner.
Known in Washington as the “Nerd Prom,” this annual rite of spring has become a bloated suck-up spectacle festooned with Hollywood celebrities, and paeans to the First Amendment are lost amidst all the schmoozing, drinking, and rubbernecking. So Trump has done everybody a big favor. With him gone, and with the free press under attack as never before, the April diners can focus with all due seriousness on their core mission: the dogged pursuit of what is true.
You may not know about this dinner; it’s a C-SPAN staple (with celebrity eye candy like George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon) that resonates mostly inside the Washington Beltway. I personally have attended only one dinner, back when we had a functioning constitutional republic, and I recall that the ballroom was overrun by actors and actresses from “The West Wing” TV show, and we scribes rubbernecked so much it’s a miracle our heads didn’t rotate like the kid in “The Excorcist.” Plus, I had to rent a tux, which really sucked, and I returned it soiled with the remnants of hors d’oeuvres.
So I get why you may be wondering why I’m writing about this dinner.
It’s because the current dinner dustup, while seemingly trivial, is actually part of the biggest story in politics.
Trump and his propagandists, besieged by the relentless coverage of Trump-Russia, are determined to destroy the power of a free and independent press. That’s why they’re going after the government people who are leaking info about the Putin connection; why they tried to compromise the FBI probe by asking the FBI to spin the Putin connection as no big deal; and why they asked several congressional Republicans — the people chairing Capitol Hill’s Russia investigations — to do the same; and why they relentlessly try to brand every factual press revelation as FAKE NEWS.
In short, Trump and his propagandists want to break a constitutionally-protected institution that seeks to hold them accountable. This is a bid for unchecked power, the likes of which we’ve never seen before; this is why I warned all last year that Trump posed a clear and present danger to democracy.
Trump’s game plan (sold to him by his tutor, Steve Bannon) is to delegitimize the press. Attending the dinner would’ve legitimized it. Playing the good sport, being the butt of jokes about Russia (and so much else) would’ve legitimized the revelatory stories.
Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney turned comedian, nails it: “Trump, like dictators in the Middle East … don’t want to be publicly ridiculed. The leaders there prefer being revered — or even feared — but can’t endure being mocked, because they believe it will undermine their power. Given that Trump seems to be following a ‘Dictator for Dummies’ playbook with his attempts to de-legitimize our media, intelligence agencies and even our judiciary, this (reason for skipping the dinner) is plausible.”
And Linda Stasi, a New York reporter who covered Trump during the ’90s, said the other day that Trump simply can’t abide any coverage that’s less than glowing (a bad trait for a president). Decades ago, “he would plant stories and he would get mad if they didn’t come out exactly as he wanted. It never occurred to him that he couldn’t control everything. [Now] he is shocked that he is not in control of the press.”
So he won’t attend the dinner. Fine. They should dump the jokes, downplay the celebrities, and sharpen their core message about a free press; about the journalists like James Foley who have lost their lives covering ISIS (putting themselves in harm’s way, unlike the entitled child who pleaded bone spurs); about the journalists killed while pursuing truth in Mexico, Syria, and Afghanistan; about the journalists here at home who hew to the quaint notion that verifiable facts are superior to marketed lies.
This fundamental fight — democracy versus despotism — is happening now, here on American soil. As Putin dissident Garry Kasparov warned yesterday: “If you can convince people that real news is fake, it becomes much easier to convince them that your fake news is real.”