White house correspondents dinner - A critical analysis

May 2, 2016

There have been hundreds of articles about the recent 2016 event, in a way Barack Obama's initial farewell speech to the world. The articles about his words and those of his selected comedian Larry Willmore, were evaluated on the laughs and that most important element for media success, edginess.  Before embarking on this essay, I did a search for other "critical theoretical" evaluations of this event. There was this one by Frank Rich of the N.Y. Times of the 2007 dinner, mostly focusing on how it breached the distance required between Press and Government needed to do incisive probing reporting.   And this broader criticism from The Christian Science Monitor of the same year.

This is a difficult essay to write, as we all are awash in a sea of entertainment. Since the panorama of emergent events is so complex, so multi-determinant, so out of the control of individuals -- we may as well turn the march of events into laughter, and show that we are all good sports who can enjoy a joke.  Mass movements are the products less of individuals reaching their own conclusions than of contagion.  This is the nature of panicked crowds being suffocated or lynch mobs doing their deeds with boisterous abandon.  It is why political pundits talk about a campaigns momentum, people wanting to be part of a crowd, even when it's invisible.

Obama's legacy should not be that "he killed" metaphorically with his jokes, since part of the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief, is real killing.  Larry Willmore, alluded to this:

"But I have to say, it’s great, it looks like you’re really enjoying your last year of the presidency.Saw you hanging out with NBA players like Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors. That was cool. That was cool, yeah. You know it kinda makes sense, too, because both of you like raining down bombs on people from long distances, right? What? Am I wrong?" 
The President smiled, displaying a hint of an impulse to respond, but the image that remained was the broad smile.  He was trapped in the spirit of the evening; this man who has been given the awesome authority to reign down death, something he sees as a responsibility in the face of a lethal enemy. He could not break the mood of the elite having a grand old time, and nothing like considering the reality of the business end of this sanitized method of killing was going to be allowed to break the mood. 

A friend I was discussing this with pointed out that there is a more outrageous example of the excesses of this annual event.  This one was President George W. Bush being the main character in a mordant parody of perhaps the worse "error" of judgement in recent history, the claim of certainty of existence of WMD in Iraq.

It was a 30 second video riff shown in his 2004 speech pretending he is searching the oval office, saying for each area he looked, "no it's not under here" as the audience laughed hysterically.  This video intersperses his mock search with  brief segments of the atrocities that we committed in Abu Ghraib, shown here to illustrate how easily his "comic" routine would be used to foment hatred against this country, generalization to be against the entire non-Muslim world. We all are still paying dearly for this riff  that spread around the world

A President of the United States may be blessed with a natural sense of humor, but never should be put into a position where comedic sensibilities override the awesome responsibility of the office.  If a President is to play to an audience, it is to the people of the United States as the leader of this country and the entire world.

What did get some serious press wasn't Obama's smile at being reminded of his use of lethal drones, but these final words of Larry Willmore:

Thank you for being a good sport, Mr. President, but all jokes aside, let me just say how much it means for me to be here tonight. I’ve always joked that I voted for the president because he’s black. And people say, “Well, do you agree with his policies?” And I always said, “I agree with the policy that he’s black.” I said, “As long as he keeps being black, I’m good.” They’d say, “What about Iraq?” “Is he still black?” But behind that joke is a humble appreciation for the historical implications for what your presidency means.

When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if i’m going to keep it 100:

Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga,  You did it.

This video describes a question to the Presidential press secretary about Wilmore's use of this word, and how the President felt about it, which was fine.  It's telling that the subject of making a joke of his use of lethal drones didn't raise an eyebrow, just as Bush's riff on the non-existent WMD that triggered violent death and destruction with no end in sight. .  What got the country's attention was, as described in the press, "the use of the N-word" (see addendum)  Mass slaughter of innocents is no big deal if it's presented in good fun, but use of an epithet for a race is a genuine sin, complete with proscription against reproducing the actual word, just as Muslims feel about a depiction of their prophet.  

The word is so satanic that it overshadowed what Willmore was really expressing, which was a very personal statement, that I understand as this:  "When we were children, being black meant we couldn't even head a football team, and you have demolished all of this.  Those days the echo of "nigger" was heard by the mob of hooded bigots about to slaughter one of us.  Now a hateful word for us is forbidden, yet I say it boldly in the new meaning that you have made possible, as a sign of  great affection and appreciation for what you have done for our people.  And for me, this transcends anything else.  So I express  it in a way that has a different meaning, ......."My nigger, my friend, you did it."

Other elements, such as Obama's ridicule of "The Donald" went unquestioned, as if it were the same as his previous taunts at earlier dinners of this man challenging his natural born citizenship.  His cartoon image of him flashing on the big screen ignored that he is now the presumptive candidate for one of our two parties that define our national democracy.  While the elite crowd in attendance of both parties generally revile him, to ignore that an overwhelming majority of primary voters, and potentially a majority of citizens may want him to be president, at the very least, makes his being fodder for juvenile jokes less than appropriate.  Obama is still the President, and as such must defend the process, which includes anyone running to gain the presidency by the will of the people.

Before recording of the White House were ended after Watergate, we can sometimes listen to a President with his pals talking freely, joking about them cheap Jews and dumb colored people and bombing the shit out of the bad guys -- all over a glass or two of whisky.  It was a release from every word that they said being evaluated by interests all over the world, with one wrong phrase costing political capital, and maybe a career.

At a certain level of prominence, there are things that are only to be said in private, since anything that is said by a President becomes public news all over the word in minutes.  When the talent to entertain prevails over actual governance, and the somberness of the office, we trivialize such decisions.  Yet they affect real people, men women and children whose existence will be shaped by this person who is now being an entertainer, who is in the limelight, ironically, because of this authority and the trust that the electorate bestows upon him, whether deserved or not. 

We revere Abraham Lincoln because we believe he agonized over the decisions that he made.  When the decision was thrust upon him of war or dissolution of the States, he chose a brutal war based on a vision of a better future, bringing widespread suffering that is beyond our imagination.  How different would his place in history be if he had a dinner, a celebrity roast, to attend rather than a play at Fords Theater.  Would he have laughed at the owners of the Plantations running for their lives, or the liberated slaves who never were going to get their promised forty acres and a mule.  Would that have gotten laughs and garnered praise for his being edgy?  As the writers of our Constitution knew, A President in many ways, as both head of government and head of state, has some elements of a monarch for his term of office.  When even for a single night once a year, the respect for the office is subordinated to garnering laughs, something vital is jeopardized.

It's just not worth it.
Addendum:  Here's Larry Willmore's talking about this last line on his T.V. Program.  He sort of conveyed the sentiment that I concluded above, but since he did not bleep the N word, as every other video had, he pointed out that the word he used was not nigger, which is an insult, but nigga, which is a different "conjugation." and a sign of affection.  If interesting in this subject in more depth, read this essay,