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Laughter and letting loose at White House Correspondents’ dinner

Laughter and letting loose at White House Correspondents’ dinner
Guests gather at the large bar at the TIME-Amazon MGM Studios White House Correspondents' Dinner after-party at the Swiss residence.

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has evolved from a one-night “Nerd Prom” at the Washington Hilton Hotel to an entire weekend, to a nearly weeklong series of events. 

It is a strange beast.

On the one hand, it calls attention to the importance of a free press and the fourth estate’s essential role in holding those in power to account. And it’s not an easy job in today’s world of “fake news” smear campaigns, deadly conflict zones such as Gaza, and authoritarian regimes that crack down, imprison, and even kill journalists.

While some have decried the sight of journalists yukking it up with the politicians they routinely cover at splashy parties across Washington, D.C., others see the annual event as a welcome break from the daily grind of covering U.S. politics. If anything, in today’s hyper-polarized world, it’s a chance to talk to people as, well, people and not as subject matter for stories. It’s also a chance for journalists, many of whom work harder than people may appreciate (not that I’m biased), to connect, and commiserate. 

And let’s face it, the parties are amazing. The British ambassador’s residence held not one but two of them — partnering with POLITICO for a kickoff party and then hosting an elegant “cup of tea” brunch on Sunday for those who weren’t too exhausted (or hungover) from the festivities the night before.

Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason held a Bytes and Bylines at her residence, while the Qatari Embassy partnered with Washingtonian for a massive, late-night confab at the Four Seasons. And most of the major media companies had a presence across town: POLITICO, Axios, and Semafor, along with legacy outlets like ABC, CBS, NBC, etc.

But it’s not just journalists who can let loose. WHCD is one of those rare occasions where presidents — especially one as cloistered as Joe Biden — can let their guard down, while also lobbing a few grenades at the reporters who regularly grill them.

The octogenarian Biden won plaudits for roasting both himself and his opponent, who’s a sprightly several years younger than him.

“The 2024 election’s in full swing and yes, age is an issue,” Biden said. “I’m a grown man running against a 6-year-old.”

Biden even called out Donald Trump by name, something he rarely does on the campaign trail. “Donald has had a few tough days lately. You might call it ‘stormy’ weather,” he quipped, alluding to the alleged affair Trump had with Stormy Daniels, which led to his current hush-money trial.

When he was president, Trump didn’t attend the dinner, which raises money for scholarships and celebrates the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That’s the one about freedom of religion, the right to peaceably assemble, to petition the government for a redress of grievances; and free speech. In 2019, Trump even forbade White House staff from going to the dinner.

While Biden’s one-liners made headlines this year, the dinner is, in many ways, all about the celebrities. Comedian Colin Jost of “Saturday Night Live” fame was an equal-opportunity host, taking potshots at both Biden and Trump.

“Can we just acknowledge how refreshing it is,” Jost said, “to see a president of the United States at an event that doesn’t begin with a bailiff saying, ‘All rise!’”

Biden wasn’t off the hook, either.

“My ‘Weekend Update’ co-anchor, Michael Che, was going to join me here tonight — but in solidarity with President Biden, I decided to lose all my Black support,” Jost said, skewering the president’s low polling numbers among Black voters.

While Jost took center stage, it was his more famous wife, actor Scarlett Johansson, who likely drew most of the stares. Both Johansson and Jost were mobbed by admirers at the French ambassador’s residence, which regularly hosts the semi-official afterparty of the annual dinner.

My favorite, though, was the TIME-Amazon MGM Studios afterparty at the Swiss residence (and I’m not just saying that because I wasn’t invited to France). With more space, it’s able to house hundreds of guests (by one count, well over 1,500), and while Jost and Johansson weren’t in attendance, a motley crew of celebrities were, including Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Jon Hamm, Sophia Bush, Molly Ringwald, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Bill Nye (the science guy).

And while Biden probably went to bed, the White House was well represented by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. Whether the party next year will be as lively if Trump wins in November remains to be seen, but for now, enjoy a few snapshots below.