President Obama made his annual pilgrimage to the Washington Hilton on Saturday night to deliver a comedic speech where he mocked the press, Congress, his critics, and himself at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, speaking to a black-tie crowd of about 2,700 in the ballroom.
Guests for the Capitol's biggest night of rubbing elbows with Hollywood glitterati, locally called the "nerd prom," included media moguls, Academy Award-winning actors, musicians, top Administration officials, lawmakers and politicos, and, of course, the hardworking members of the press.
First Lady Michelle Obama was seen dabbing tears of laughter from her eyes and as her husband chuckled his way through his wide-ranging speech, which included celeb references--Taylor Swift got name checked, as did Jay-Z ("I’ve got 99 problems and now Jay-Z is one") and eventually transitioned to serious praise for the nation during trying times.
After four and a half years in office marked by constant media criticism, the President had little to lose, something he pointed out as he began his speech at 10:14 PM, taking the podium as Hail to the Chief was replaced by the rap tune All I Do is Win by DJ Khaled.
"Rush Limbaugh warned you about this--second term baby, we’re changing things around here a little bit," the President said to laughs, and went big with self-deprecation to pave the way to zinging everyone else.
"I get it--these days I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be,” President Obama quipped as he noted that he sank just two basketballs out of 22 attempts at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
"That’s right: Two hits, 20 misses. The executives at NBC asked, 'What’s your secret?'" he said in his first media slam.
From there, the President went on to comment on the changing landscape of the 24-hour news cycle, which he called inherently cynical with the emergence of social media.
"I remember when Buzzfeed was just something I did in college around 2:00 AM," he said, to laughter. "It's true."
CNN came in for a pointed barb; during coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, reporters announced a series of misrepresentations on air, which the network never apologized for.
"I know CNN has taken some knocks lately, but the fact is I admire their commitment to cover all sides of a story, just in case one of them happens to be accurate," President Obama said.
He followed up with a compliment for NBC's Pete Williams and The Boston Globe for accuracy. Still, the press, the President said, is "the dark side," as he gave a shout-out to his former Senior Advisor David Axelrod, who was at the dinner: "David Axelrod now works for MSNBC, which is a nice change of pace since MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod."
Even the History Channel came under fire: The President noted that the channel hadn't purchased a table for the dinner, perhaps thanks to the actor who played the devil in The Bible series looking suspiciously like him.
"Of course, that never kept Fox News from showing up," President Obama said to more laughter. "They actually thought the comparison was not fair--to Satan."
"The fact is, I really do respect the press," he continued. "My job is to be the president, your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better."
Americans looking for the truth about his performance should ignore the press and instead visit the media entity known as "Whitehouse.gov," President Obama said.
"These guys are great. I think everybody here should check it out, they tell it like it is," the President said. "I cannot get enough of it."
The ballgown and tux-clad audience, gathered at tables hosted by media outlets, laughed 61 times during the President's remarks, according to the transcript released by the White House. Mrs. Obama, seated at the flower-laden Head Table between Michael Clemente, executive vice president, Fox News, and the evening's host, Conan O'Brien, seemed to be hearing her husband's speech for the first time, leaning over to clutch Clemente and laugh.
The First Lady wore a floor-length black gown designed by Monique Lhuillier that featured a sparkling beaded lace neckline and cap sleeves. Her hair was pulled back in a soft bun, with her signature bangs on full display.
As is the case each year, the President's remarks featured multi-media elements, including photoshopped images of himself wearing his wife's bangs, and a colorful image of what he said was the "accurate" photo of himself shooting skeet at Camp David projected on the ballroom's four jumbo screens.
On his wife's bangs, the President said: "Second term, you need a burst of new energy, try some new things. And my team and I talked about it. We were willing to try anything. So we borrowed one of Michelle’s tricks."
"I thought this looked pretty good, but no bounce," he joked. Mrs. Obama giggled appreciatively, as did the crowd.
Republicans in general and Rep. Marco Rubio (R-FLA), in particular also got slammed by the Jokester in Chief.
"I mean, the guy has not even finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he’s ready to be president," said Mr. Obama of Rubio, a reference to his own abbreviated Senate career. "Kids these days!”
The President chuckled anew as he said that if the GOP wants to expand their minority outreach, they don't have far to look.
“Call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they can start with,” the President said, raising his hand. "Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know?"
He also admitted that his "charm offensive" with Senate Republicans, which has now included four closed-press dinners, is having little impact.
"My charm offensive has helped me learn some interesting things about what's going on in Congress--it turns out, absolutely nothing," the President said.
At one dinner, he added, "I proposed a toast--it died in committee."
He vowed that his efforts will continue, quipping that these will include "a Texas barbeque with Ted Cruz, a Kentucky bluegrass concert with Rand Paul, and a book-burning with Michele Bachmann."
The President's speech included the debut of "Obama," a White House video made by director Steven Spielberg, spoofing his "Lincoln" biopic. The President "plays" actor Daniel Day-Lewis in the video, "playing" Barack Obama. Tracy Morgan appears as Vice President Joe Biden. Spielberg, Day-Lewis and Morgan were all at the dinner, while Biden was not.
Following the video, the President turned serious as he ended his remarks, shifting attention to recent national tragedies, and praising first responders and the military.
"These have been some very hard days for too many of our citizens. Even as we gather here tonight, our thoughts are not far from the people of Boston, the people of West, Texas, and in the Midwest there are some people coping with some terrible floods," President Obama said.
"Even when the days seem darkest, we have seen humanity shine at its brightest."
The Head Table included Press Secretary Jay Carney, board members of the WHCA as well as Gen. Ray Odierno. The full seating arrangement. Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass was one of the many Administration officials at the dinner; he sat at the table hosted by the Associated Press. Senior Policy Advisor Valerie Jarrett sat with Bloomberg.
O'Brien on the attack...
O'Brien, making his second appearance as host of the dinner, during his own remarks went for the same targets as the President, skewering the media and Republicans, with plenty of arrows for the Commander in Chief, too.
"As a late-night comedian, I was kind of pulling for the rich guy whose horse danced in the Olympics," O'Brien said after congratulating President Obama for winning re-election.
He said the President "occasionally ate dog" as a kid, so "clearly he had his eyes on the presidency," adding that Mr. Obama is always the "coolest in the room" because he's in rooms where "Tom Vilsack is showing Stephen Chu how to do the Harlem Shake."
O'Brien also wondered aloud if the President has "a gambling problem we don't know about" because his organization is sending people "five emails a day" asking for money.
"Seriously Mr. President," O'Brien said, "Your hair is so white it could be a member of your Cabinet."
The President had his own zinger for O'Brien: "I understand that when the Correspondents’ Association was considering Conan for this gig, they were faced with that age-old dilemma: Do you offer it to him now, or wait for five years and then give it to Jimmy Fallon?"
O'Brien also went after the media. The speeches were carried live on C-SPAN, which O'Brien quipped used technology that was the equivalent to a back-up camera on a Ford Explorer.
"The print media are here for two very good reasons: food and shelter," O’Brien said, and joked that if the dinner was a high school cafeteria, Fox News would be the "jock," MSNBC was the "nerds," bloggers were the goths, NPR was the "table for kids with peanut allergies" and Al Jazeera was the "weird foreign exchange student no one talks to."
Criticism and the Hollywood guests...
In a first for any host of the annual dinner, O'Brien returned his $10,000 honorarium to the WHCA, donating it to the scholarship fund, organization president Ed Henry of Fox News announced during the event. Henry also conceded the concerns voiced by many recently that the dinner is too focused on Hollywood celebrities; this year E! broadcast live from the red carpet for the first time.
"We should be serving the public and the next generation of journalists," Henry said, before ushering in a group of young journalists who were receiving the WHCA's series of scholarships. The White House made a point of tweeting that Mrs. Obama would help present the scholarships.
"Tonight, the First Lady will help present scholarships to young journalism students at the WH Correspondents' Dinner. #WHCD," was written on @FLOTUS.
Still, at the start of the evening’s program, the audience saw a comic video montage created by the WHCA featuring actor Kevin Spacey in his "House of Cards" role as a Machiavellian congressman, haggling with Carney and real members of Congress, including Steny Hoyer and John McCain. There was also a photo montage of Biden and some of his signature one-liners.
The event anchors an entire weekend of Washington journalists partying with guests from Hollywood, and includes pre- and post-dinner cocktail parties, lunches and brunches, hosted by media outlets. It was observed obsessively on Twitter, by those attending and those watching from outside the Beltway, with the hashtags #nerdprom and #WHCD.
"That #WHCD was pathetic. The rest of America is out there working our asses off while these DC assclowns throw themselves a #nerdprom," tweeted former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
O'Brien during his remarks suggested that those tweeting during the dinner use the hashtag #incapableoflivinginthemoment, which rapidly caught on.
Celebs attending included actors, musicians, sports stars, and models: Claire Danes, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bradley Cooper, MC Hammer, Michael Douglas, Paul Rudd, Nicole Kidman, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jeremy Renner, Barbra Streisand, Gabby Douglas, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Katy Perry, Amy Poehler, Madeline Stowe, Kathleen Turner, Courtney Cox, Kate Walsh, Kristin Chenoweth, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen, Tony Goldwyn, Kerry Washington, Psy, George Lucas, Jon Bon Jovi...and many others.
The President and Mrs. Obama arrived by motorcade at the hotel at 7:08 PM and vanished into a VIP room until they entered the ballroom for the dinner at 8:15 PM. They were back home at the White House at 11:16 PM.
Ahead of the dinner, the President played golf for close to five hours on Saturday at Join Base Andrews, joined by US Trade representative Ron Kirk and White House aides Marvin Nicholson and Mike Brush. The President had no public events scheduled for Sunday.
The transcript of the President's remarks.
The "House of Cards" video:
*Videos by C-SPAN; "Obama" video by White House; top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; others pool photos