White House Correspondents’ Dinner gives Biden a chance to flex his funny bone

by Admin
White House Correspondents’ Dinner gives Biden a chance to flex his funny bone

President Joe Biden on Saturday night will attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, giving the president a stage and primetime slot to needle the media and his rival former President Donald Trump.

Biden will speak to a crowd of nearly 3,000 journalists, celebrities and politicians, continuing a tradition dating back to Calvin Coolidge of presidents addressing the dinner at least once during their term. Trump did not attend the dinner as president, but had previously been a guest as a private citizen.

Biden in recent weeks has been flexing an instinct that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to him — a sense of humor — to take on his rival, making fun of his hair; the dropping stock price of Trump’s social media company; and the former president’s new endeavor into selling Trump-branded Bibles to take some air out of the outsized attention and coverage Trump is getting during his criminal trial.

“I haven’t had a chance to watch the court proceedings because I’ve been campaigning,” Biden told supporters at a campaign reception in New York Thursday, according to pool reports.

While Biden has delivered many of these speeches before, the stakes for what could be his last White House Correspondents’ Dinner are high. His approval rating is flagging, and voters and donors alike have raised questions about whether his mental acuity is up to the task.

Inside the Biden team’s preparation

When Biden delivered remarks announcing he’d signed critical legislation sending $61 billion in aid to Ukraine and $26 billion in aid to Israel and Gaza, there was a new critic standing by: Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign and the onetime chief of content studio Dreamworks.

Katzenberg has often advised Biden on messaging to donors and voters. This week, he was on hand to see firsthand how Biden delivered scripted material –and to help the 81-year-old president deliver punchlines to the reporters who cover him.

“He’s the Hollywood guy,” an administration official told CNN. “He’s the entertainer.”

Administration officials said Katzenberg led daily strategy sessions in the White House residence this week to tweak Biden’s comedy set drafted by longtime speechwriter Vinay Reddy. The sessions spanned hours in the White House residence, where longtime aides Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Anita Dunn, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and Annie Tomasini helped curate material and helped Biden tweak his delivery and tone.

The group held its longest session, roughly four hours with a brief intermission, on Friday – after the president returned from a two-day swing through New York City – and reached consensus on the material a full day earlier than prior years, when top aides were forced to get dressed for the event in the West Wing because they were running so close to their deadline.

With Biden expected to spend much of his time targeting his Republican opponent, the White House wanted to ensure that the evening’s other headliner, Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost, spread his barbs across the political spectrum.

Biden administration officials said they sought to share that concern with Kelly O’Donnell, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and senior White House correspondent for NBC News, and with Jost’s team in NBC’s entertainment division as well.

“Our dinner entertainment is most successful when it is aimed at both parties and at the national media,” O’Donnell told CNN. “That has been a repeated part of our discussions behind the scenes at every step of the planning this year. That is the WHCA’s intention every year.”

Flexing Biden’s sense of humor

Biden in recent weeks has been taking jabs at Trump, including his predecessor’s legal woes. Mocking comments and jokes at Trump’s expense have increasingly become a fixture of the president’s public remarks – and that is likely to be one theme of Biden’s Saturday night speech at the Washington Hilton’s cavernous ballroom, a source familiar told CNN.

While Biden has been using more and more comedy to go after Trump, his default rhetorical style isn’t usually to look for a punchline.

“He’s used the expression ‘Not a joke, folks’ more than he has told actual jokes,” one former aide said.

When it does come time to deliver a comedy speech, the task of writing it is typically a group affair, with jokes submitted from different parts of Biden’s orbit. Katzenberg, in particular, has urged Biden to include more self-deprecating jokes about his age.

Biden will give his writers some directives as they launch into the process, including naming areas he thinks should be off-limits or places he wants to strike a more serious note.

Staffers – even those beyond the speechwriting team – submit joke ideas, some of which make the speech and some of which get tossed.

In past years, Rob Flaherty, once the director of digital strategy and now a deputy campaign manager, and Dan Cluchey, a senior speechwriter, were named as sending some of the choicest material.

Biden, when he was vice president, also sought outside help for comedy speeches he delivered at the yearly Gridiron dinner and in other lighthearted settings. Among those Biden has turned to was Jon Macks, a top writer on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” who has also written host material for dozens of Oscars ceremonies, along with an extended constellation of acquaintances. One person involved in the process when Biden was vice president recalled a submission from Seth Meyers, then the head writer on “Saturday Night Live.”

Before big speeches – and, because of the important of timing and cadence, particularly comedy speeches – Biden practices with groups of aides.

Political ramifications of previous dinners

During previous dinners, Biden has shifted between being funny and serious. Toeing that line could be more of a delicate balance during this year’s dinner, with the backdrop of a war and hunger crisis in Gaza and turmoil on college campuses across the country, during which some police have used heavy-handed tactics to disperse groups of students protesting that war.

Though the dinners are meant to be light-hearted affairs, some of the past events have had wide-ranging political ramifications.

When Trump attended the 2011 dinner as a guest, President Barack Obama mocked the then-reality TV star, poking fun at the baseless and false “birther” conspiracy theory that Trump had been promoting as well as his time on “The Apprentice.”

“You didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey,” Obama said, joking about Trump’s experience with difficult situations. “And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”

Obama said that line having greenlighted the raid that would lead to the death of Osama bin Laden just before attending the dinner. Many have speculated that Obama’s treatment of Trump at the 2011 dinner inspired the latter to run for president.

This year’s dinner will stream live on CSPAN, and CNN will air a special featuring Biden’s remarks and Jost’s performance.

Asked before the weekend whether Biden was looking forward to or dreading the dinner, one senior adviser insisted to CNN that the president actually enjoys the event because he does like spending time with reporters.

But the adviser quickly added: “I think he wouldn’t ever admit it.”

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