The White House Correspondents' Dinner is this Saturday, and, as usual, media organizations (including our own) have been scrambling to land celebrity guests to pack their ballroom tables. And, as usual, the names run the gamut of glamorous to titillating. But in the run-up to what's been dubbed "Nerd Prom," one invitation has stood out: the Washington Post is slated to bring Donald Trump, birther presidential candidate and reality TV star. And assuming Steve Wynn's daughter's wedding doesn't run long, by next Sunday morning web sites and newspapers will be full of pictures and mentions of the newspaper that considers itself the top of the heap when it comes to politics linked to a high-polling presidential candidate who's aligned himself with a racially tinged conspiracy theory.
So how's that going down in the newsroom?
There's already been some harsh outside reaction. Salon's Alex Pareene asked, "Why would the Washington Post, as an institution, officially align themselves with a living freak show?" There have been fewer reactions from inside the Post. One notable exception came this past Sunday when the Post's wunderkind columnist Ezra Klein tweeted news of Trump's invite with a dejected addendum: "That's embarrassing."
We did not find too many people at the Post willing to talk about the Trump invite. Asked to elaborate, Klein said, "No." But a newsroom employee who asked to remain anonymous echoed his sentiment: "It's embarrassing but so is the entire affair." Another Post source defended the invite--to a point. "I understand where the question comes from, but the guy is at the top of the polls. He's No. 1," the source said. "Look, the guy wants to play in the deep end of the pool, so fine, let him." The source also pointed out that the Post extended its WHCD invitation when Trump's birther candidacy was considered a publicity stunt instead of credible. "Imagine if the Post decided, 'You're not invited.' Then you would be doing a different story."
The Post has covered Trump plenty in the last month but, considering the material they have to work with, you wouldn't say they've done anything to scare off their dinner date. Eugene Robinson called his potential candidacy "all too absurd to contemplate" and admonished him for referring to African American voters as "the blacks." (Robinson did not respond to an interview request.) Richard Cohen called him "the comeback huckster," but we think he meant that as a compliment. Typing from Las Vegas, he concluded: "like Melville’s whale or Spielberg’s shark, he keeps coming, coming, coming. His TV show thrives. His real estate empire survives. In this city, I look out my hotel window as I write this column. Before me is a huge box of bling. The desert sun enflames the name at the top: 'T-R-U-M-P' in bold gold letters." And there's Dan Balz who, as more of a news analyst than a pundit, gave Trump an even-handed political press corps working-over: "The New York businessman has grabbed headlines with his provocative remarks on President Obama’s birthplace. He continues to question whether the president was born in Hawaii, despite ample evidence that he was. But what he has had to say about real issues deserves as much attention as his 'birther' comments." After all, as one of our Post sources said, the polls are the polls "He could end up running for President. [Birtherism] makes him an illegitimate presidential candidate to me, but I'm not a Republican primary voter."
The credit for turning the White House Correspondents' Dinner into something of a celebrity circus often goes to Michael Kelly, the late editor of The Atlantic, who when he worked at the Baltimore Sun in the late 1980s invited Donna Rice, known for her affair with Democratic presidential candiate Gary Hart. From then on, booking big name guests became the priority for media companies instead of finding the most respected dignitaries. As such, the Post's invitation of Trump hardly demeans a serious function. But it does give Trump more prominence, more self-importance and another platform to spew his racist conspiracies.
Trump's harshest critic at the Post so far has been conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who called Trump a "provocateur and clown" who "can only hurt the [Republican] party" with his questions about Obama's birthplace. We asked him whether he shared Klein's embarrassment at being affiliated with him through the WHCD. "He's a spectacle," he said. "If I took the White House Correspondent's Dinner any more seriously than the Trump candidacy than it would bother me. But I don't. Like Trump, it's a spectacle."