Presidents Trump, Nixon and Carter and the WH Correspondents’ Dinner

The dinner is a scholarship benefit for gifted students in college journalism programs, not a political affair. President Trump does not need to be there.


WASHINGTON, February 27, 2017 — President Trump has tweeted that he will be skipping the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner (WHCD). The dinner, traditionally held on the last Saturday in April, is a scholarship benefit for gifted students in college journalism programs, not a political affair.

In response to the media scorn over Trump’s decision not to attend the non-state event, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC’s This Week “This wasn’t a president that was elected to spend his time with reporters and celebrities.” 

White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason responded to the President’s announcement.

“The White House Correspondents’ Association looks forward to having its annual dinner on April 29. The WHCA takes note of President Donald Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he does not plan to attend the dinner, which has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic. We look forward to shining a spotlight at the dinner on some of the best political journalism of the past year and recognizing the promising students who represent the next generation of our profession.” (Courtesy NPR)

That is indeed the purpose of the dinner, which was first held on Saturday, May 7, 1921. The first president to attend was Calvin Coolidge, in1924. There is a long tradition of singers and other entertainers at the dinner, but the comedic roasts of the president began only in 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.

Reagan is the last president to have missed the WHCD, in 1981. That was not due to a sour relationship with the media; he was recovering from John Hinckley’s assassination attempt.

Although Reagan was not at the dinner, he called in from the hospital that evening saying:

“If I could give you just one little bit of advice, when somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it,”

Prior to Reagan, Presidents Nixon and Carter skipped the dinner outright.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was the right man for an America that was bruised following Vietnam and Watergate. During his presidential honeymoon period, his press relations and reviews were generally favorable. Carter brought his Georgia peanut farmer charm to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and was considered unpretentious, affable and easy to get along with.

The honeymoon didn’t last.

Carter’s presidency ended in a sense of crushing failure, during what was seen as one of America’s most humiliating defeats: the Iran Hostage Crisis. The hostage crisis defined and destroyed Carter’s presidency. It helped deny him a second term, helping elect Ronald Reagan.

Three thousand militant Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran, trapping 52 Americans, holding them hostage and taunting an impotent America for 444 days. These students supported the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohmeini, who some saw as a religious fanatic.

Kohmeini opposed the more moderate Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was attempting to Westernize Iran’s fundamentalist, and religious, society.

The Iranian Hostage crisis lasted for 444 days, ending just minutes before Carter’s presidency ended.

The last two years of Carter’s presidency were filled with unending criticism by the press. He once accused Newsweek of creating what we now call “fake news”; he called that magazine is “the worst violator of the self-initiated story …”

In his memoir The Other Side of the Story, Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell was highly critical of the Washington press corps. ABC created its news show, Nightline, in response to the hostage crisis, keeping the crisis on America’s TV screens every night for over a year. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” closed every broadcast with the number of days Americans had spent in captivity.

Carter skipped the WHCD in 1980 while he was overseeing one of this countries greatest crises. But he also skipped it under a cloud of recrimination with the press that bludgeoned him with that crisis unmercifully.

Richard Nixon’s turbulent relationship with the press began long before he became President. His first run in with the press was in 1952, when he was on the ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. On September 18, the New York Post created a bit of “fake news” reporting that wealthy backers had created a secret fund for Nixon’s personal use.

Pat and Richard Nixon were not wealthy and being on the campaign trail was expensive, even then.

Nixon addressed the fake news story on September 23, 1952, when he delivered his “Checker’s speech” account of his personal finances. He explained that his wife, Patricia Nixon, did not have a mink coat, but a “respectable Republican cloth coat,” and said that he would not return the one gift he had received, a cocker spaniel named Checkers which was adored by his children.

“Regardless of what they say about it,” Nixon said, “we’re going to keep him.”

When Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960, he agreed to a series of live debates, a mistake as at that time he was the favorite to be the next president.

His distaste for the media grew further as a live television broadcast showed Nixon, recovering from a severe knee injury, as gaunt and unhealthy, perspiring profusely and green in his TV makeup. That image contrasted with the handsome, healthy appearance of the Senator from Massachusetts.

According to NPR’s The American Experience, “Those who watched on television favored Kennedy. But listeners on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate.”

Nixon famously told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “The press is your enemy.” That’s a little more direct than Trump advisor Steve Bannon calling them “the opposition party.”

Nixon White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman was a key figure in the Watergate scandal. It was during a conversation with Haldeman that the unexplained 18-1/2 minute gap in the Oval Office recordings occurred.

Nixon skipped the annual WHCD in both 1972, the year of his electoral landslide over George McGovern, and in 1974, the height of the Watergate scandal and the year he resigned.

Trump’s decision to avoid the WHCD is not unprecedented, and given his relations with the press, it seems a sensible one. Any bonhomie between him and the press corps would be hypocritical, and it is not a requirement of the job for him to open himself to direct and personal abuse.

As the Trump administration is forcing Washington to reconsider so many former verities, now might be a good time to reconsider the role of White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. It has become a place where the line between Hollywood celebrity and journalism are blurred, and the line between journalists and their subjects.

Perhaps, after a couple of years of Trump boycott, the dinner can become what it was, “a spotlight … on some of the best political journalism of the past year and recognizing the promising students who represent the next generation of our profession.”

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