Comedy is out. Chernow is in.
The White House Correspondents’ Association announced on Monday that for the first time in 15 years, no comedian would crack jokes at its annual black-tie dinner in April. Instead, Ron Chernow, the historian and biographer of Alexander Hamilton and John Rockefeller, will speak on the First Amendment.
The dinner, intended to commemorate comity between the president and his press corps, has come under immense pressure in the age of “fake news,” and President Trump has declined to attend two years running. This year’s performer, the comedian Michelle Wolf, outraged the Washington crowd with her off-color jokes about members of the administration. Mr. Trump, for his part, declared the dinner “DEAD as we know it.”
“This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for,” the president wrote after Ms. Wolf’s set.
The choice of Mr. Chernow, five months ahead of the April 27 event, seemed intended to lower the temperature. “As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history,” the president of the Correspondents’ Association, Olivier Knox, said in a statement.
But the irony of a First Amendment group shying away from a potentially contentious speaker struck some as unfortunate — not least Ms. Wolf.
“The @whca are cowards,” she wrote on Twitter. “The media is complicit. And I couldn’t be prouder.”
The correspondents’ dinner has attracted top stars like Conan O’Brien and Seth Meyers, whose blistering jokes at Mr. Trump’s expense in 2011 are said to have prompted the real estate developer to consider a political career.
Ms. Wolf was not the first comic to cause a ruckus; Stephen Colbert’s 2006 appearance so discomfited the tuxedoed audience that Rich Little, an inoffensive impressionist, was invited the following year.
Mr. Trump’s boycott has complicated matters.
Usually, the president delivers a comedic monologue of his own, lending the evening a sense of good-natured parity. Mr. Trump has been absent — and his regular attacks on the press as “the enemy of the people” have led to questions about the utility of a night of formal schmoozing for reporters and their government sources.
Some critics have long viewed the night as problematic. Kyle Pope, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote in April that the dinner was “destined to be either sycophantic, on one extreme, or meanspirited, on the other. Neither is a good look at a time when trust in media is tenuous.”
The last dinner to feature a non-comedian took place in 2003, when Ray Charles performed; President George W. Bush also skipped the usual roast in part because the country had recently invaded Iraq. Jay Leno appeared the following year, and Mr. Little’s snoozy set was followed in 2008 by the talk-show host Craig Ferguson.
In the past, some correspondents have called for eliminating the comedian entirely and refocusing the dinner on the First Amendment. The plan met resistance from those who enjoy the celebrity quotient of the evening, which has acquired the once-ironic, now-earnest Washington nickname of “#nerdprom.”
For now, it seems like the more sober side of the debate has prevailed.
Mr. Chernow, 69, is known for Pulitzer Prize-winning histories of presidents and statesmen, including the Hamilton biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical. For those curious about his speaking style, he offered a preview on Monday in a statement distributed by the Correspondents’ Association.
“Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics,” Mr. Chernow wrote. He added, “While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian, I promise that my history lesson won’t be dry.”