“What’s the difference between a pitbull and a hockey mom?” asked President Obama during last night’s annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, doing a variation on Sarah Palin’s old campaign line. His answer? “The pitbull is delicious.”
Both Obama and the celebrity roaster, Jimmy Kimmel, returned repeatedly to the recent “news” that as a child, the President sampled dog meat. In the world of Washington politics and social humor, this was joined to Mitt Romney’s now-legendary gesture of traveling with his dog crated on the top of his car to create a lot of Saturday-night, post-dinner, bi-partisan canine joshing. The President went so far as to put together a fake ad that featured his own dog in a spot about the secret “dog socialism” he’s planning to institute should he get a second term in office.
Kimmel’s targets included not only the President, but also the only acceptable way you can joke about the First Lady — by ridiculing Michelle Obama’s healthy-food initiative: “They say diplomacy is a matter of carrot and sticks, and since Michelle Obama got to the White House, so is dinner.” His targets ranged from portly conservative New Jersey governor Chris Christie (“I think you’re misunderstanding New Jersey’s slogan: It’s not the Olive Garden State”) to the apparently unemployable liberal Keith Olbermann (“I’d like everyone to look under their seats. You’ll find a copy of Keith Olbermann’s resume”; “I didn’t know Current TV existed, because I don’t get Channel 1,000,000”).
I liked how old-school Kimmel was, doling out one short, punchy joke after joke after joke, in the manner of Henny Youngman; he also read them off that stuff we used to call “paper,” licking his finger as he peeled off page after page, rather than read off a monitor. Knowing that hero-pilot Sully Sullenberger was among the diners, Kimmel got in a dig at another attendee, Lindsay Lohan: “Sully, will you drive Lindsay Lohan home? Just make sure you don’t run into a goose, and make sure it isn’t a Grey Goose.”
(In the run-up to the dinner, C-SPAN broadcast a lot of celebrities and politicians arriving at the event, and also footage from a charity luncheon earlier on Saturday. At the latter event, everyone arriving stopped to be interviewed or had his or her picture taken. Not La Lohan, however — she was whisked past the media throng, a sour look on her puss. Boy, am I not looking forward to Lohan portraying Elizabeth Taylor in an upcoming TV-movie: Lindsay’s hostile lack of humor has doomed her as a performer as much as any substance-abuse problems.)
Obama’s timing was just as crack as Kimmel’s. He hammered back at the Romney campaign’s attacks on him. “I have not seen The Hunger Games: Not enough class warfare.” “We both have degrees from Harvard. I have one, he has two. What a snob.” Closer to home, and just to prove, in the passive-aggressive manner that humor provides, that he gets along with his Secretary of State, Obama also tweaked Hillary Clinton: “Four years ago, I was locked in a brutal primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Now, four years later, she won’t stop drunk-texting me from Cartagena.”
It’s always a little startling to see the media pundits who usually spent their days and nights on cable TV reporting on or inveighing against one politician or another laughing and joking at this dinner — what the pundits themselves call, with tiresome repetition and a not-so-secret, adolescent, the-politicians-really-love-us thrill, “the nerd-prom.” The odd-couple, Democrat-Republican, media-pol, milling-around socializing broadcast by C-SPAN is as fascinating as the joke-speeches. There’s a little dissonance in hearing the President of the United States say, “Chuck Todd — love you, brother.” It’s at once comforting (see? these people don’t hate each other!) and discomfiting (if they really are all buddy-buddy, why can’t we get more bills through Congress?). Every year the White House Correspondents’ Dinner reminds us that idealism always loses to pragmatism.
Or as Kimmel put it to the President: “Remember when the country rallied around you in hope for a better tomorrow? That was a good one.”
Watch both Kimmel and President Obama at the WHCA dinner below: