Saturday, May 09, 2009


By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Washington

Depending on your point of view, the White House Correspondents' Dinner is either a great party where journalists get to press the flesh and network with the rich and famous - not to mention powerful - or a huge jolly that highlights just how cosy the relationship between the media and politicians has become.

File photo of Barack Obama at a black tie dinner at the White House
Will Barack Obama keep his sense of humour?

The dinner is an annual event stretching back to 1920, hosted by the White House Correspondents' Association.

Usually the president is the guest of honour. The first president to attend was Calvin Coolidge back in 1924.

This year's event, on Saturday, is attracting particular attention given that it is the first during Barack Obama's presidency.

Many will be watching to see how good his sense of humour is.

In recent years the president has received a "roasting" from the special guest of the evening, usually a comedian.

The commander-in-chief has to endure having fun poked at him - and so far it has only been a him - while the world's media look on and chuckle.

This year the American comedian and actress Wanda Sykes will be the special guest providing the stand-up.

In 2006 everything got a little awkward when Stephen Colbert, host of the satirical news show the Colbert Report was the guest speaker.

An outspoken critic of President George W Bush, he pulled few punches. He ripped into President Bush for more than 20 minutes.

"Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a 32% approval rating," he quipped.

"But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls.

"We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality."

President Bush looked on, a rather forced smile on his lips that had all but disappeared by the end of the ordeal.

Pretty brave of Colbert, with the world's most powerful man sitting within spitting distance, not to mention the ranks of secret service agents waiting back stage.

US President George W Bush conducts the US Marine Corps band at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on 26 April 2008
George W Bush got to conduct the US Marine band in 2008

Half the audience laughed, some tried to suppress smirks and others shuffled their feet and sipped awkwardly on the claret.

Which brings me on to the food and drink. At $200 (ÂŁ133) a ticket, you would expect quite a spread.

But this year the diners will not be getting their just desserts.

The WHCA has said no puddings will be served.

As a somewhat token nod to the state of America's economy, the money saved will go to a shelter for the homeless. Let them eat cake instead.

Not everyone will be attending mind you. As in recent years the New York Times is expected to boycott the dinner.

In 2007 the paper's columnist Frank Rich wrote that "the fete is a crystallization of the press's failures in the post-9/11 era: it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows".

There will actually be some real actors there.

Each media organisation, and the BBC is one of them, invites celebrities to try and boost the profile of the table.

This year the famous names range from A-list (Ben Affleck, Sting, Jon Bon Jovi) to D-list (think Celebrity Big Brother Season Six).

I will not give away who is going to be gracing the BBC table.




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