If you are a reasonably affluent progressive, the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner had to be a real gas. President Obama and comedian Larry Wilmore came out swinging, taking jabs at just about anyone of any political stripe. This was not an event for everyone. You had to be politically knowledgeable, even politically sophisticated. You needed to know how to give and take. You needed to be comfortable mocking the foibles of others while absorbing the punches that knock you off your pedestal. Perhaps most importantly, you had to be able to mock yourself. Obama and Wilmore are very good at that.
However, I could not help thinking about what a closed club this was. The people in the ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel were almost without exception dressed in formal wear, and it’s likely that most of them were owners of what they wore rather than renters. An exception was Bernie Sanders who has never worn a tuxedo. Perhaps his unwillingness to become a full-fledged member of the club inside the hall was reason why President Obama directed perhaps his harshest criticism (or jokes) at him. “Bernie, you look like a million bucks.” (Laughter.) “Or to put it in terms you’ll understand, you look like 37,000 donations of 27 dollars each.” (Laughter and applause.) To me, that joke came across as mocking Sanders as a bit of a “low-life” in the room who neither knows how to dress like the elite or raise money in their special and secret hideaways.
Nielson Ratings don’t do this, but I wonder how many television views of the festivities were the angry white blue-collar workers (and non-workers) who have pledged their allegiance to Donald Trump. I doubt that there were many. Why should they? They would not be able to “understand” most of the humor, and that which they could might well come across as directed at them. That’s because it was. The makers and shakers in the room, journalists, politicians, moguls and other celebrities, were very comfortable within their skin within that room. It was a night off for them; they could afford to lavish themselves in their luxury and forget about the working people of America who for all intents and purposes have not had a real wage increase since the early 1970s. But oh, I forgot, most of the people in the room tend to forget about that every day, and that makes the Trump supporters (and others of their demographics) even madder.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is essentially a liberal event because it involves a lot of irony. That is something that frequently escapes Republicans. But there are different kinds of liberals from those who were in attendance at the Dinner. It’s hard to tell if their numbers are dwindling or if they will multiply as part of the Bernie bandwagon effect.
Social critic Thomas Frank has written about the schism in the liberal ranks in his new book Listen Liberal. Historian Steve Fraser has also done so in his book, The Limousine Liberal. You can get a taste of both of them from this review in the New York Times. A key point in both is that there is a wide gulf, or perhaps more accurately described as a disparity, between the liberals in that room that night and the people who once counted on them to champion their causes.
President Obama was funny that night (to me and many others). But like Hillary Clinton, he has become seems more immersed in the gestalt of “being liberal” than really fighting the battles of those in need. If Hillary takes the podium at next year’s WHCD, it will be interesting to see if she is (a) as funny, and (b) any more connected to the masses not in the room.