Let’s go back to 1989 when, just a few months into his presidency, the late George H.W. Bush, looking dapper in black-tie, stood at the podium of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which celebrates the central role that a free and independent news media plays in the health of our republic. Not only did Bush have a seat at the head table onstage, he introduced the comedian who was about to impersonate him. “The wonderful Jim Morris is here tonight,” Bush said, “and I get the feeling that he is about to snuff out some of those thousand points of light. Jim Morris, remember—kinder and gentler, kinder and gentler.” Thirty years ago, on the surface at least, the optics of politics in Washington was kinder.
Before competing information bubbles kept us in alternative factual universes, before the voracious 24/7 news cycle, toxic tweets and tribalism, we had humor and collegiality. It wasn’t a panacea—Americans have always found themselves disagreeing from different sides of the aisle. But as humor slowly evaporated from political discourse, so did Americans’ trust in government. According to the Pew Research Center, at the start of Bush’s presidency, 44 percent of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington “always” or “most of the time.” Today that number stands at 18 percent. I’m not saying one caused the other—but would you trust someone who couldn’t laugh at themself or with others?
Last year Michelle Wolf’s tawdry routine blew up the Correspondents’ Dinner, leading to the question of what’s appropriate for an event meant to honor and elevate. This year, writer and historian Ron Chernow takes up the mantle of featured speaker. “I wanted someone who would speak to the room as much as to the TV audience,” current WHCA President Olivier Knox told me. “Someone who could bring some real perspective to the current political climate; someone who would help me follow in my predecessors’ footsteps and keep the focus of our event on journalists and journalism.” It’s a good call—we could all use some real perspective.
As for Morris’ routine, he began his Bush bit moving his head, stammering and fighting to get words out. Bush eventually was laughing so hard he covered his face with his dinner napkin. Kinder and gentler, kinder and gentler.