The president delivered a hits-and-a-miss stand-up routine at the the Radio-Television Correspondents Association Dinner.
The miss was a reference to the tenuous state of journalism, a sore spot with many in the audience almost all of whom probably know someone who has been laid off recently or will be laid off soon or may be hoping not to have their own sandwiches wrapped in road-maps, as my old boss used to say when advising me on when I would know he wanted me to hit the road.
“As you know, we’ve been working around the clock on to repair our major financial institutions and our auto companies,” he told the audience midway through the routing. “But you probably wouldn’t understand the concept of troubled industries, working as you do in radio and television.”
After some groans and general silence, he recognized the nerve he had touched. “We, don’t joke bout that, huh?,” he asked rhetorically, sensing a thinner skin than applied to jokes about others’ troubles.
He began his shtick with a reference to the proximity of the dinner to the White House Correspondents Association. “I want to thank you for this opportunity to tell all the jokes that weren’t funny enough for me to use when we did this five weeks ago,” he said, adding a gentle shot at the changing nature of news and where people are going for it. “Despite the flood of new media, he said, I think your programming is more relevant than ever before…. At least that’s the impression I get when I read the blogs every day.”
He followed that up with a zinger that had the crowd booing good naturedly. “The jokes may not be as good,” he said, “but neither is the guest list.” He may have sensed a little sore spot there, too, adding: “I’m just joking” as though he needed to clarify.
He took a shot at Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is a regular foil for the president given his penchant for toughness and colorful language. “In Egypt, we had the opportunity to tour the pyramids,” said the president, “and by now I’m sure you’ve all seen the pictures of Rahm on that camel. I admit, I was a little nervous about the whole situation. I said at the time, ‘This is a wild animal known to bite, kick, and spit. And who knows what the camel could do?’
The president chided Brian Williams, who shadowed the president from the Oval office to the sub shop and everywhere in between for a “day in the life” special, “Inside the Obama White House.” The president said he had tossed and turned trying to come up with fresh material for the night’s routine. “Finally when I couldn’t get back to sleep,” he said, ” I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.” The crowd roared with laughter. “The truth is that Brian Williams is a terrible house guest,” he added. “He puts empty milk cartons back in the fridge. Leaves wet towels all over the Roosevelt room. And I’m pretty sure he clogged the toilet and didn’t tell everybody.”
Chad Pergram of Fox got in a tweak. Pergram, the dinner coordinator, announced the winners of the awards of the evening (see below) and as he took to the rostrum said the President would have to listen to someone from Fox for awhile. The President got in a return Fox shot later.
“Another difficult challenge is to try to help our automakers thrive in the 21st century. We tried a number of different approaches and tonight I am announcing a new one, a plan passed on to me by a close friend and adviser, Oprah Winfrey. So if each of you will look under your seat, you’ll find that you have a car company. But Fox, you get AIG.”
While the journalists had trouble laughing at their plight, the car company jokes went over big. At one
point, the President turned pitch man for Buick (this is as close as I could get to a direct quote through the laughter that filled the room.. “GM will rise or fall on the quality of its products,” he said, “like the taut, athletic design of the new Buick Enclave, whose whose leather seats and warm wood tones make the Enclave more than transportation. It’s the modern driver’s retreat….Work with me here. We’ve got cars to move…”
On healthcare, the joke was more wry than raucous, and ended with a sharp new edge on an old saw. “One problem we’re trying to solve is the high cost of health care in America. And I’m pleased that in our quest to reform the health care system, I have gained the support of the American Medical Association. It proves true the old expression that it’s easier to catch flies with honey. And if honey doesn’t work, feel free to use an open palm and a swift, downward wrist motion.” I would like to use that last part myself sometime. Nice.
He also got in a half-serious plug for his Supreme Court nominee. “When I am not sure I am right, I often ask myself WWWLD, What would a wise Latina do? I’m proud of my nominee, Sonia Sotomayor [applause]. To all of those who say there is no place for empathy on the bench, I say this: ‘I completely understand how you feel. When you’re upset, I’m upset.”
As is custom, the president at the end turned serious to give a shout-out to his audience. And while he had joked about the rise of new media, he included it alongside the old in his praise for journalists.
“Despite the jokes I told, I am here tonight because I appreciate all that you do and the role that you play. You report the news as it happens and cover history as it’s made, with a handheld camera or a mike or now even a cell phone or a blog, you bring the truth to people and allow people to bring truth to the world.”
He cited the coverage of Iran and its combination of professional and citizen journalists. “We’re seeing that now as history is unfolding in the sounds and images broadcast from Iran over t the last week. We’ve seen professional and citizen journalists act as a voice for those who want to be heard, bearing witness to universal aspirations of Democracy and freedom, often at great risk, sometimes with great sacrifice. They do it because the rest of us need to hear the stories that they tell.”
He cited coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Congo, and “everywhere there is a story that needs to be
The two awards given out at the dinner went to NBC’s Mike Viqueira (the Joan S. Barone award for Washington-based national affairs/public policy coverage), Viqueira was cited for his coverage of the down-to-the wire vote on the president’s stimulus package.
Receiving the David Bloom Award for enterprise reporting was Orla Guerin of BBC World News for a story on a Congolese food distribution center, which pushed the presidential campaign off the lead position off its newscast. Accepting for Guerin was BBC World News Executive VP Rome Hartman, who called Guerin a brave, tough, smart journalist whose instinct was to get in the middle of a story not to grandstand but to humanize it. He added a plug for the newscast, advising his audience to check it out saying there was nothing else like it on American Television.
The dinner was dedicated to the memory of three journalists who had died in the past 12 months or so, NBC’s Tim Russert, CNN’s Bill Headline, and Fox’s (and The White House’s) Tony Snow.
But the dinner was mostly about poking fun at journalists and the president. Jib-Jab founders Evan and Gregg Spiridellis were in the audience and came armed with a new video sending up the president as a super hero who could punch space robots in the face, fight global warming with his super breath and take a drag on a cigarette once in a while. The president smiled and laughed throughout the video.
The Onion also pealed back the pretensions of broadcast journalism with a special report on how important it was for journalists to have a venue to salute themselves and how vital a role they played. Without TV anchors, asked Onion Anchor Brandon Armstrong in a video segment, “who would describe what we are seeing.”
The live entertainment was provided by John Hodgman, familiar to late night fans for Daily Show appearances and just about everybody else as the nerdy “PC” in those Apple commercials.
In fact, his riff was a quiz of sorts to determine the nerdiness of the new president, pointing out that Obama knew the Vulcan salute–the president obliged by flashing it. The president did not do as well with a three-part question about the science fiction classic, Dune, though Hodgman may have been responsible for one first, the most bizarre question ever asked a sitting president, which was something like: “What is the name of the hallucinogenic vomit expunged by the sand worms when they are drowned in water.” The president wisely took a pass.
There was method in Hodgman’s madness, however. His point, eventually, was that the president combined both nerdiness and jockiness, essentially uniting two age-old factions.
Did I mention a good time was had by all except that the food was not served until 9:30, after the president had come and gone, though my guess is he got served a meal. The food was not up to airline quality so it’s coming late was a double let-down. But because my server offered me a second desert unprompted, the evening, including the meal, was a total success.