‘A horrible plague, then Covid’: Biden and correspondents joke in post-Trump return to normality

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Joe Biden celebrated the return of a flashy annual gathering of Washington’s political and media elites on Saturday with some humorous jabs at Donald Trump – and himself.

The US president, sporting a tuxedo and slightly askew bow tie, spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was another tentative step towards Washington norms after Trump repeatedly snubbed the gala, which champions the freedom of the press.

“This is the first time the president has attended this dinner in six years,” Biden observed. “It’s understandable. We had a horrible plague – followed by two years of Covid.”

That quip produced laughter. The next one elicited both laughter and groans: “Just imagine if my predecessor came to this dinner this year. Now that would really have been a real coup if that occurred.”

The gathering included the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and other cabinet members as well as journalists such as CNN’s Jake Tapper and MSNBC’s Joy Reid. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson, Brooke Shields and Caitlyn Jenner walked the red carpet.

The three-course dinner took place in a vast, crowded hotel ballroom despite the long shadow cast by the pandemic. Biden, 79, skipped the meal with the 2,600 guests, all of whom had to provide proof of vaccination and a same-day negative test.

The event was an opportunity for the president – or more precisely his speechwriters – to flex some comedy muscles at the expense of the media, the Republican party and his own ego.

He began: “A special thanks to the 42% of you who actually applauded. I’m really excited to be here tonight with the only group of Americans with a lower approval rating than I have.”

The president made fun of the hypocrisy of conservative cable channel Fox News, which has required its own employees to be vaccinated or tested daily, even as its primetime hosts rail against Biden’s vaccine mandates.

“I know there are questions about whether we should gather here tonight, because of Covid. Well, we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic. Plus, everyone had to prove they’re fully vaccinated and boosted. So if you’re home watching this, and you’re wondering how to do that, just contact your favourite Fox News reporter. They’re all here, vaccinated and boosted. All of them.”

He also seized on recent revelations that Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Fox News’s Sean Hannity exchanged more than 80 text messages between election day in 2020 and Biden’s inauguration.

“Fox News, I’m really sorry your preferred candidate lost the last election. To make it up to you, I’m happy to give my chief of staff to you all so he can tell Sean Hannity what to say every day.”

Perhaps the biggest laugh came when Biden made light of the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan, which has become rightwing code for swearing at him. “Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon. He’s having a really good year and I’m kind of happy for him.”

When Biden shifted gear towards the end of his 14-minute speech to recognise the importance of journalism to American democracy, he again drew a contrast with his predecessor by insisting that a free press “is not the enemy of the people”.

“Where the truth is buried by lies and the lies live on as truth, what’s clear, and I mean this in the bottom of my heart, that you – the free press – matter more than you ever did in the last century,” Biden said.

He added that “American democracy is not a reality show” – seemingly another dig at Trump, former host of The Apprentice.

In another restoration of tradition, the president was obliged to sit as he was roasted by a comedian. South African Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, told Biden: “Thank you for having me here. And I was a little confused on why me, but then I was told that you get your highest approval ratings when a biracial African guy is standing next to you.”

Noah also observed: “Ever since you came into office, things are already looking up. Gas is up, rent is up, food is up, everything.”

The comedian took swipes at media personalities and the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis. He said of Kyrsten Sinema, a conservative Democratic senator who has helped to thwart much of Biden’s legislative agenda: “Who ever thought we’d see the day when a senator could be openly bisexual but a closeted Republican?”

Noah wrapped up with a reference to Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, telling the audience: “Please be careful leaving tonight. We all know this administration doesn’t handle evacuations well.”

The black tie dinner had other serious moments, with tributes to pioneer journalists of colour and aspiring student reporters. A sombre photo montage honouring journalists killed while covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted a standing ovation.

Chris Coons, a Democratic senator and Biden ally, told the Guardian: “As it has always been in its best years in the past, this was an evening that was celebrating young journalists, celebrating seasoned journalists, celebrating pathbreaking journalists from a generation ago and mixed with a lot of humour, some hobnobbing, some celebrities.

“The president played exactly the role we would hope a president would: a little bit of light humour, a very serious tribute to the importance of a free press and then sitting and listening as others poked fun at him.”

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