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Trump's Absence Loomed Large At Annual White House Correspondents' Dinner

White House Correspondents' Association President Jeff Mason (lower left) watches as journalists Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein prepare to address the association's dinner in Washington on Saturday.
Cliff Owen
White House Correspondents' Association President Jeff Mason (lower left) watches as journalists Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein prepare to address the association's dinner in Washington on Saturday.

"Is anyone going to come through here?"

That's what a Hilton hotel employee asked one of a dozen photographers along the red carpet at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner a couple of hours before the event officially started Saturday evening. But, like a blood-thirsty mosquito on a sweltering night, it was the nagging, persistent thought that seemed to plague attendees throughout the event.

The reason: the vacuum left by the absence of President Donald Trump, who had decided to spend his 100th day in office rallying with supporters in Pennsylvania.

In person, the man takes up a lot of physical space — he's 6 feet 2 inches tall and is in the vicinity of 230 pounds if you believe Dr. Oz — but in absentia the space he takes up seems even larger. And the president's absence seemed to cast an air of self-consciousness on what is typically a self-congratulatory night for Washington's White House press corps.

By the way, not only is it the first time in 36 years that a sitting president has opted out of the shindig, but when considering that the only reason Ronald Reagan skipped it was due to an assassination attempt, Trump's snub is an even harder blow. Even Bill Clinton, in the depths of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment, attended each year he was in office.

It also didn't help that Trump took gleeful delight in making fun of the dinner at his "Make America Great Again" 100-day victory lap rally that took place Saturday evening in Harrisburg, Pa.

"A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation's capital right now," the president told a roaring crowd. That seemed to spur him on: "They are gathered together for the White House correspondents' dinner — without the president."

Perhaps in response to that taunt, Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents' Association and a Reuters journalist, opened the annual event by saying, "We are here to celebrate the press, not the presidency. And I am happy to report that this dinner is sold out."

In the end, Trump was right about the media but wrong about the "large group of Hollywood actors." Few such celebrities showed up — on the red carpet at least. There was one: Matthew Modine.

At one point two young women, who seemed to be there with their parents, asked if they could linger on the red carpet a little longer in case "someone" showed up.

Sadly, unless they meant former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, longtime civil rights activist Al Sharpton or legendary journalist Bob Woodward, they were almost certainly disappointed.

Even among the journalists there to cover the journalistic gathering, the pros couldn't help but lament the good ole days of the Obama administration — when the dinner was as much a Hollywood affair as a Washington one. In years past, photographers had elbowed one another for the perfect shot of Kerry Washington, Morgan Freeman, Reese Witherspoon and the reigning queen of celebrity-dom, Kim Kardashian.

But some in attendance claimed to be relieved by the more lax, low-key atmosphere.

"It got too big," Lisa Cole, a Hilton publicist said. This was her sixth year at the event.

"Over the years it became this star thing, and that's not what it was supposed to be about," she added.

As the trickle of guests at the Hilton dwindled, one cameraman put it this way: "If last year was an 11, this year was a five."

Meanwhile, the vibe just a few miles away at Samantha Bee's alternative gathering, aptly monikered "Not The White House Correspondents' Dinner," was exactly the opposite. The young crowd was atwitter, happily snacking on free popcorn hors d'oeuvres and booze.

And there were famous people, too. Peaches sang the opening song.

Alysia Reiner of Orange Is the New Black was swarmed by fans and she patiently smiled for picture after picture with women who professed to loving her on the show.

"I could not be more excited to be here," she told NPR. "I've always wanted to go to the White House correspondents' dinner and I was invited and I would rather be here." Attending the Bee event instead was a "super easy" decision, she said.

Will Ferrell performs during <em>Full Frontal With Samantha Bee's</em> Not The White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Jason Kempin / Getty Images for TBS
Getty Images for TBS
Will Ferrell performs during Full Frontal With Samantha Bee's Not The White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

While the official WHCA dinner was hosted by The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj and included a very brief taped cameo by Alec Baldwin in full Saturday Night Live Donald Trump costume, Bee's show topped that with Will Ferrell reprising his impression of George W. Bush onstage.

"For a long time I was considered the worst president of all time," Ferrell's faux former president snickered. "That has changed, and it only took 100 days."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.