Michelle Wolf knew exactly what she was doing when she hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But in scrambling to repair the scorched earth her set left in its wake, the White House Correspondents’ Association has made it clear that it has no idea what it’s doing at all.
True to the searing comedic style she honed on Late Night With Seth Meyers, The Daily Show, and her own HBO special (sarcastically titled Nice Lady), Wolf ripped into her subjects without mercy and with a smile. Her 20-minute set took aim at the media, President Donald Trump, his policies, and administration officials like Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who, unlike Trump, was sitting mere feet away.
Almost immediately after Wolf finished her set — with a wry reminder that “Flint doesn’t have clean water,” no less — the outrage cycle went into overdrive. Journalists and Trump administration officials alike decried the routine as inappropriately harsh, a “disgrace,” or, in the words of President Trump himself, an “embarrassment.” Think pieces wondered if Wolf had “killed” the dinner for good; the Hill has announced it won’t attend the dinner anymore unless it undergoes “major reforms.” The White House Correspondents’ Association itself released a statement saying the routine didn’t embody “the spirit” of its mission.
But Wolf has stood firm, saying that she wouldn’t change a word.
Wolf’s routine was harsh, but not at all out of character for a roast
In the room, Wolf’s jokes were met with an awkward mix of laughs, disbelieving gasps, applause, and silence. Her jokes dripped such unsparing disdain that I instinctively shifted away from my screen while watching it, as if getting too close to her spitting fire would singe my eyebrows clean off.
But this kind of shock is exactly the reaction Wolf was aiming for — not to mention exactly what the White House Correspondents’ Association was courting by hiring her in the first place.
Granted, her material was often filthy. Her jokes about pussy hats and Trump’s reported past romancing of porn actors were apparently explicit enough that C-SPAN radio reportedly cut away from her routine halfway through instead of running the risk of indecency fines. But in between those jokes, Wolf was admirably blunt about some of the nastier issues that have plagued the Trump era and its accompanying news coverage.
She not only called out the fact (fact!) that this administration routinely depends on lies to achieve its goals but also pointed out that the media has profited from the seemingly endless supply of scandals Trump’s campaign and presidency hath wrought.
When asked about the outsize reaction to her set, Wolf told NPR the Monday after that she stands behind her set because she didn’t want to “cater to the room” of politicians and pundits. As for the apparent shock and dismay that she went as hard as she did, Wolf added, “I think sometimes they look at a woman and they think, ‘Oh, she’ll be nice.’ If you’ve seen any of my comedy, you know ... I’m not.”
Wolf obviously holds disdain for the Trump administration, its exclusionary policies, and the people, from Huckabee Sanders to CNN producers, who make excuses for them all. She’s also a comedian who was hired to do not just a standup routine but a roast — and punchlines that take aim at anyone and everyone is what’s always been on the roast menu.
Stephen Colbert’s famous 2006 set — in which he skewered George W. Bush while in his character as a right-wing pundit — is remembered as daring now. But at the time, he got a world of grief for being too “rude” about Bush’s aggressive foreign policies and supposed intelligence level. In 2009, Wanda Sykes drew criticism for a joke about Rush Limbaugh being too stoned on Oxycontin to show up as the 20th 9/11 hijacker. In 2011, both host Seth Meyers and President Barack Obama took detours during their routines to blast Trump for pushing the ridiculous “birther” conspiracies about Obama’s birthplace while he sat stone-faced in the audience.
But this year, the second in a row that President Trump boycotted in his ongoing war with the press, seems to be a breaking point.
The WHCA said it wanted Wolf to embrace her “self-made, feminist edge.” It wasn’t prepared for her to rise so spectacularly to the occasion.
Here’s what Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, said about Wolf ahead of the dinner:
Our dinner honors the First Amendment and strong, independent journalism. [Wolf’s] embrace of these values and her truth-to-power style make her a great friend to the WHCA. Her Pennsylvania roots, stints on Wall Street and in science and self-made, feminist edge make her the right voice now.
And here’s what Talev said after, once the backlash started and it became clear that Wolf’s “feminist edge” might have cut too deep for some:
Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.
Talev and the WHCA backtracked so hard that they couldn’t even bring themselves to use Wolf’s name as they threw her under the bus. Despite setting up the evening as a celebration of the First Amendment and hiring Wolf to bring “her truth-to-power style” to Washington, the organization folded immediately under pressure.
It’s telling that the aggrieved journalists who dismissed Wolf’s routine as cruel focused on her complimenting Huckabee Sanders for achieving a “perfect smokey eye” with the ashes of facts rather than her telling the media that “what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you.” In their haste to condemn Wolf’s set as too harsh, some journalists revealed just how much they want to remain on the administration’s good side — or at least be able to plead objectivity — in order to cover it.
“If the #WHCD dinner did anything tonight, it made the chasm between journalists and those who don’t trust us even wider,” the Associated Press’s Meg Kinnard tweeted to explain her distaste — and honestly, she might be right. But that sentiment also ignores a crucial element of Wolf’s set: It was true. That should count for something at an event honoring an institution that insists it prizes the truth above all else, but apparently, not so much.
So what does the WHCA actually want? Does it want people to speak truth to power, or to feign civility between the free press and an administration that actively fights it? It can’t have it both ways — and so, apparently, it’s chosen the path of least resistance.