WASHINGTON (AP) — Much of Washington is ready to party like it was in 2019, before the coronavirus, when the biggest risk at the annual White House Press Corps Gala was more likely to be jokes that ruffled too many political feathers.
After the pandemic ended the event in 2020 and 2021, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returns Saturday night, with Joe Biden as the first sitting president to attend in six years after Donald Trump avoided it during his tenure.
The comedy is also back, with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah headlining. Celebrities too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected, and comedy studio Funny or Die is co-sponsoring an after-party. The event also attracts a wide range of government officials and other eminent personalities.
“Seeing the President of the United States return and dinner return, I think, signals more than a pause in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of the book “Presidents Against the Press.” “We are safe to talk to each other again.
“I think that relationship – even though it’s a one night thing where witticisms are exchanged and people make fun of each other and each other – it’s a very healthy thing.”
It feels like a modicum of normalcy returning to the nation’s capital, but it’s also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, is skipping dinner “due to my individual assessment of my personal risk.”
It raised questions about whether Biden, 79, should leave. The president will skip the meal and come back later for the program. He plans to be masked when not speaking.
Biden mentioned the dinner during a speech this week about Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying, “I’ve always had respect for the press but I can’t tell you how much I’ve respect to watch them in those areas where they’re under fire.”
“Imagine if we didn’t get that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s plan to attend “stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press almost on a daily basis, but didn’t also never attended the dinner”. Trump happily boycotted the event and sometimes called the media “enemies of the people.”
After the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and Biden’s cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19.
The White House points to the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce the serious consequences of the virus by 90% in those most at risk. Still, PSAki said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it’s possible he could test positive for COVID, like any American.”
Indeed, the United States is experiencing a spike in COVID cases from a highly contagious omicron subvariant, with confirmed infections reaching around 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Although well below the peak of more than 800,000 cases per day nationwide at the height of the omicron wave earlier this year, current statistics are likely underestimated given the increased availability of COVID-19 testing. 19 at home, the results of which may not be communicated to the health authorities.
The White House Correspondents Association said it would require same-day antigen testing for its diners even before the Gridiron outbreak. It has since added a vaccination requirement for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity of over 2,600 and is sold out.
Despite the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, virus deaths and hospitalizations are near or at pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving to be less severe than earlier virus strains. Just over 300 people die each day in the United States from the virus, up from more than 2,600 per day earlier this year – with around 1,600 hospitalizations per day, compared to a peak of more than 21,000 per day in January.
The Correspondents’ Dinner began in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend three years later and everyone has done so since except Trump. However, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon chose not to attend every year of their presidencies, and Ronald Reagan, then recovering from an assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment – but called from Camp David.
“What I think it shows is the restoration of the health of the relationship,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But it’s okay.”
After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the following year’s event featured historian Ron Chernow. The return of celebrities this time recalls the administration of President Barack Obama, when George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis were present.
As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedic video with HBO’s “Veep” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which got plenty of laughs at the correspondents’ dinner. White House speechwriting director Vinay Reddy and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon worked on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, using information from various people inside and outside of government.
PSAki has previously acknowledged trying to lower expectations, saying the speech was “not funny at all. Just kidding.” Presidential attempts at humor can be tricky, though.
At the 2011 dinner, Obama skewered an unamused Trump — in his presence — over Trump’s fictitious claims about the then president’s birth certificate. Obama concluded by believing that Trump would take office one day, saying, “He would definitely make changes in the White House” as the banquet hall screens projected a parody image of the grand facade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue equipped with a Trump logo, gold columns, a digital clock, and a sign that reads “Hotel, Casino, Golf Course, Presidential Suite.”
This turned out to be prophetic, since Trump of course took over from Obama – although the reshuffles he eventually made to the presidency stopped short of affixing his name to the White House.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.