Special Correspondent from Washington
The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, an annual comedic event, was light on jokes and replete instead with warnings about the consequences of attacks on the free press.
In Washington, Chernow, biographer of founding father Alexander Hamilton and former president Ulysses S Grant, delivered an eloquent and erudite defence of the freedom of the press with some subtle barbs, winning a standing ovation from an audience that quickly forgot any disappointment over the lack of a comedian this year.
“We now have to fight hard for basic truths that we once took for granted,” said Chernow, who mentioned Trump by name only once in an address that framed the current presidency as just one chapter in America’s epic novel.
WHCA President Olivier Knox characterized this year's dinner as a “reset” that aimed for a more muted evening with Chernow, who wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit Broadway musical. Still, Trump and the White House boycotted the event.
While guests were unsure of what to expect from Chernow ahead of his speech — which marks the first time in decades that a comedian has not hosted the event — the night ended with a standing ovation for his surprising and unique mixture of history lesson and roast.
While talking about Alexander Hamilton at one point in his speech, Chernow referenced Trump's recent comments that the U.S. is “full” and can no longer accept any more immigrants.
“The system is full. We can’t take you anymore,” Trump said earlier this month, adding that for both “illegal immigration” and “asylum,” the answer is “I’m sorry. We’re full.”
Chernow joked that Hamilton, who came to the American colonies from Nevis, was lucky he arrived before the present era.
Hamilton was “an immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full,” Chernow joked. “Frankly, I don't know why they let the guy in. Clearly, someone slipped up at the southern border.”
“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,” said Chernow.
He made the comment as he spoke about Trump's and other presidents' relationships with the press. Chernow's reference to Mount Rushmore also appeared to be a subtle jab at Trump floating the idea that he could one day be on the U.S. landmark.
“Now here’s what I do. I’d ask whether or not you someday think I will be on Mount Rushmore,” Trump said at a rally in 2017. “But here’s the problem: If I did it joking, totally joking, having fun, the fake news media will say, 'He believes he should be on Mount Rushmore.' So I won’t say it. OK? I won’t say it.”
“As we head into election season, I leave you with one last gem from Mark Twain: ‘Politicians and diapers must be changed often and for the same reason,’” he added.
Guests in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton hotel rose to their feet, clapping and cheering. Chernow joked: “I’m sorry to report I’m not finished!”
The historian made clear his distaste for the Trump administration’s embrace of “alternative facts” and false narratives. “Without the facts we cannot have an honest disagreement. I applaud any president who aspires to the Nobel prize for peace, but we don’t want one in the running for the Nobel prize for fiction.”
Trump has refused to attend the WHCA dinner during his time in office and has called the media “enemies of the people”. This year he also banned White House staff from attending, although former press secretary Sean Spicer and longtime friend Chris Ruddy were present.
Olivier Knox, WHCA president, asked attendees of the dinner to turn their attention to journalists who are "suffering for their craft" around the world and to advocate for the release of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist kidnapped while reporting in Syria in 2012.
“This is not [Trump's] dinner — it is ours,” said Knox. “And it should stay ours.”
Annual dinner celebrates the First Amendment and marked the Association’s 105th year. Celebrity journalists, senior politicians, dignitaries were present this auspicious occasion.