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I write this with some hesitation, because it might merely confirm the notion that I am fast becoming a crotchety old man, but here goes: it’s time to get rid of the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In the old days—pre-YouTube and Twitter—the dinner was a more-or-less private affair. There would be some quotes in the papers afterwards, but that was about it. Now it’s streamed live and can be watched on tape by millions, and it’s begun to have the feel of one of those interminable Hollywood awards shows. The jokes are dissected not only for humor content, but for balance and hidden meanings. Presidents are criticized for being insensitive to real problems, while emcees are damned or praised, usually depending on the political leanings of the listener. The targets of the barbs are expected to smile good-naturedly while everyone else is squirming in their seats, trying to pretend the whole evening isn’t more than a bit unseemly. I’ve been to a few of these events, and my squirming became so severe that I stopped attending.
The dinner was a good idea at its inception back in 1920. After all, we Americans rather like the idea that our presidents aren’t royalty, and we take pride in the fact that we are allowed to poke fun at them (I don’t recall many Castro roasts). But maybe it’s the growing mean-spiritedness of contemporary humor, or maybe it’s the nature of the problems facing the country and the world, but the whole thing comes off as sort of—if you’ll pardon a technical term—icky. Besides which, we don’t need these dinners to see the “lighter side” of our presidents. Between the tweeting and the talk shows, there’s no shortage of opportunities for our leaders to show us just how funny they are. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind having more chances to see how serious they are.