The White House Correspondents' Dinner has become a strange event. It is, ostensibly, an evening when the president and the press can come together to share a few lighthearted laughs. But it's evolved into a recital of brutal truths -- albeit one neither side ever really admits happened.Of course the president wasn't joking, and of course the seriousness of what he said won't be acknowledged. The point of the WHCD is that it's a ritualized event at which people say what they mean about the Beltway's conflicts, but everyone agrees not to get real about resolving those conflicts, because, hey, it's just a fun, silly night, right? It's not that people won't admit it ever happened -- it's that it's neatly pigeonholed as not serious -- which is why real things can be talked about there. It's like a Feast of Fools at which the political order is mocked, even though the feast never really challenges the political order -- the feast is a safe space for blowing off steam.
The joke of President Obama's performance on Saturday was that he wasn't joking. Everyone just had to pretend he was.
The WHCD is when Washington roasts itself -- and, remember, if you want to land a blow that leaves a mark, you don't do it at a roast. Fox News doesn't broadcast roasts of Democratic politicians -- it frames its attacks as news and packages them as serious stuff. Subjecting yourself to a roast is a way of quarantining the worst things said about you. That's why you see Justin Bieber, a teen idol turned noxious adult, subjecting himself to a Comedy Central roast. It places the criticism of him in a safe, harmless space. It does no damage to his career.
Yes, I know: some on the right, particularly Power Line's John Hinderaker, are whimpering about the mean things Obama said at the dinner, particularly about climate change in the segment featuring Keegan-Michael Key as Luther, the president's "anger translator":
That's fun, and it's fun to imagine that Hinderaker's whingeing and whining represents genuine hurt feelings. (The portrayal of Luther, a regular feature on Comedy Central's Key and Peele, is, Hinderaker says, a "hateful bit.") But Hinderaker is a soldier in the Koch army -- Think Progress remind us in 2011 that Hinderaker's law firm, Faegre and Benson, represented Koch Industries, and it was noted in 2012 that the Kochs had tried to place Hinderaker on the board at the Cato Institute. So he's just using the president's remarks as an excuse to do his usual climate bamboozlement on behalf of energy billionaires. The plutocrats' army of climate distorters is now so huge -- at this point it includes pretty much every elected Republican in America -- that even a forthright defense of climate science by the president of the United States in a highly visible forum changes nothing about the ongoing debate. Everyone went home after the dinner and resumed their old stances. It's still the official policy of the GOP that climate change is a non-issue because it snows sometimes.
So, yes, I wish what the president said mattered. It doesn't.