Tonight, President Obama will be attending the White House Correspondents Dinner for the sixth time during his presidency.
Below are links to the transcripts of his remarks at the first five dinners. I think that they are of interest for several reasons.
First, he does this sort of thing better than any president—if not in history, then in living memory. Commentators focus on how difficult it is for the featured comedians to strike the right balance between being respectful and being true to themselves, between avoiding egregiously cheap shots and being genuinely funny. But the president has an even more difficult task: he has to be funny while remaining presidential. His speechwriters can provide him with terrific material, but he has to be able to deliver it with an almost perfect pitch and tone.
Second, given how very well received President Obama’s remarks at these dinners have been, it is remarkable to realize how edgy some of the material has been—in particular his jokes at the expense of many prominent Republicans. The humor is very effective—perhaps most notably, his extended jokes at the expense of Donald Trump in 2011. Although this dinner is a singular occasion for engaging in such humor, it is clearly such a potentially devastating weapon to use against his most extreme critics that one wonders why he has not used it more often or more fully on the campaign trail and in his travels around the country promoting his political agenda. He seems to have used it more often in the last six months than previously, and it seems to have finally blunted the impact of some of the relentless talking points and ridiculous rhetoric from the Far Right.
Lastly, anyone who doubts that the President can do this effectively has only to look at the conclusions to his remarks in most of these years, in which he has shifted very seamlessly, with a remarkable ease, from delivering jokes to expressing serious heartfelt sentiments. Those sentiments remind us that what we see briefly on the news is the focus of our leaders’ waking hours and that the circus-like tone of much of our politics represents a profound disconnect from the often terrible impact of public events on the private lives of individuals. This sort of disconnect serves to highlight the difference between seriousness and a humorless quest for any political advantage.
President Obama’s performances at these dinners have shown him to be man largely at peace with himself—a man who understands both the power of the office that he holds and his continuing limitations as a human being. Whatever you might identify as those limitations and however serious you might think they are, his balanced perspective on the office and himself is a very basic characteristic that every president should have. It is at the core of a basic sense of decency that we like to regard as a distinctly American trait. It’s something that our leaders should have even if we ourselves more often seem to aspire to having it than actually to exhibit it.