I used to go to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, but wouldn’t now, even if I was invited, which I’m not. It has evolved into a country-come-to-town grabfest where those who skulk around Washington’s power centers mingle with Hollywood stars, corporate sponsors and their political sources, playing like they’re exciting, or even interesting. I have long felt that the musical theme song for the whole dress-up thing should be Fathead’s “First Class Riff-Raff.”
One of the highlights, though, is the speech from the president, where the chief executive pretends he likes the press while making remarks dripping with sarcastic, and might I add funny, one-liners. Barack Obama didn’t disappoint.
His best probably involved the shaky economy and Hillary Clinton’s campaign startup, where in her effort to demonstrate she’s not the candidate of entitlement but just common folk, she piled into a minivan with her courtiers and headed off to first caucus state Iowa.
“I have one friend,” quipped the president, “just a few weeks ago, she was making millions of dollars a year. And she’s now living out of a van in Iowa.”
Don’t worry one little bit about Hillary’s finances, although there are a lot of people spending a ton of time examining how she and her hubby, the ex-president and maybe future first dude, accumulated their massive wealth since leaving the White House.
Imagine my horror when I suddenly was told that I had to give an early morning TV news explanation, that is to say a superficial one, about detailed articles that raised complicated questions about their moneymaking.
My shallow explanation of The New York Times article is that it revealed many of the contributors to the Clintons’ foundation and the family themselves while Hillary was secretary of state and how that juxtaposed to an eye-glazing record of business transactions that led to the Russian government owning 20 percent of a uranium mine in the United States. Halfway through, I realized my viewers all had gone back to sleep.
A Washington Post report that hit the same day accounted for Bill Clinton’s speeches at grotesque rates. Many overlapped the business of his foundations to the tune of $26 million. That’s a quarter of the $100 million plus he has made from speaking fees since he left the White House. And that doesn’t count the huge bucks Hillary received before and after she was secretary of state. Actually, that begs a question: Would a President Hillary Clinton keep up the tradition of speaking before the White House Correspondents’ Association shindig, since she couldn’t be paid her usual $200,000?
All of this continues to fuel a Republican narrative against the presumptive nominee, where they raise doubts about her honesty. With the relentless questions about her and her family’s ethics — which, of course, date back to the years of Clinton 1 — combined with the present-day stewing about the family foundation’s sources of money, to say nothing of the controversy about the secretive way she handled email during her years as secretary of state, her political enemies are having a pretty easy time of it. The respected Quinnipiac poll tallies that 54 percent of people believe she is not to be trusted.
However, that same survey shows her beating any of the top GOP candidates or expected ones, face to face. They’re so busy appealing to the party’s base, railing against social progress every chance they get, that Hillary Clinton’s perceived dishonesty seems to be preferable to what they’re offering. If that holds, she may win in what can best be described as hold-your-nose balloting.
Whoever does take over, the media here will continue sucking up to the ones in power with displays of awkward hubris, like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s a way for members of the press corps to show that they’re Washington insiders. Never mind that they’re supposed to be outsiders.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.