As a White House correspondent, I get to attend “the nerd” prom – also known as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
There is a ton of star gazing, and it has moved too much into the Hollywood category for my taste. I must be even more of a nerd than most of the attendees, as I have no idea who these Hollywood types are and draw a blank when someone asks me if I have seen the last episode of a show I have never heard of.
What does excite me about the correspondents’ dinner is that fact that it exists. There are many parts of the world where spoofing and comedy from the president and the comedian would not take place. Just this year, I brought some Halloween decorations and masks to South Sudan. In my mask cache was one of President Obama. It spooked out the good people in the village where I was staying. They told me that if someone wore a mask of a politician in South Sudan, they would be arrested.
Reporters Without Borders (where I am on the American advisory board) ranks South Sudan 124 out of 179 countries surveyed. South Sudan, as well as other African countries, still has a long way to go.
President Obama used the dinner to poke fun at himself. “Now, look, I get it. These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be. Time passes. You get a little gray. And yet, even after all this time, I still make rookie mistakes. Like, I’m out in California, we’re at a fundraiser, we’re having a nice time. I happen to mention that Kamala Harris is the best-looking attorney general in the country. As you might imagine, I got trouble when I got back home. Who knew Eric Holder was so sensitive?”
He got some great laughs and smiles.
Conan O’Brien had jokes that would never have flown in many parts of the world that are uptight about press freedom.
“I have a question, and I think some of you also have this question,” he told the president. “It’s been several months since you were reelected, Sir, so I’m curious, why are you still sending everyone five emails a day asking for more money?
“You won,” he reminded Obama. “Do you have a gambling problem we don’t know about?
“Did you put it all on Gonzaga?” he asked, a reference to the president’s NCAA March Madness college basketball bracket. “You did, didn’t you? He did!”
There are people who want to copy the press freedoms of the West. When it takes place however, the powers in those countries get freaked out. Bassem Youssef, a cardiac surgeon, began his show in his home on YouTube. It was picked up by Egyptian television. Recently, he was brought in for questioning by the police. Jon Stewart, asked why President Morsi was so afraid. He has all the tanks and the guns. As Jon Stewart pointed out, Youssef had only the humor.
The tradition of the correspondents’ dinner is to be an example to the rest of the world. By example, we show how we hold our press freedom as a bedrock of our society. It is something to be admired and emulated – even if there is still a bit too much Hollywood.