Critic's Notebook: Ron Chernow Kills at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

The famed historian and author of 'Alexander Hamilton' delivers a talk at once inspiring, informational and downright funny.

When the White House Correspondents' Association announced that they would not have a comedian host its 2019 dinner, I was skeptical. It seemed an act of cowardice, bowing down to a president who's too thin-skinned to take a joke at his expense and has declared the press to be an "enemy of the people." The organization's choice of featured speaker, Ron Chernow, the author of such esteemed biographies as Alexander Hamilton and Grant, seemed a mistake as well. He's a great historian, sure, but could he really bring the laughs?

It turns out that he could. Chernow killed in his speech, delivering a combination of history lecture and pep talk that brought the crowd of seasoned journalists (there didn't seem to be a sitcom or movie star among them, for a welcome change) to their feet. For a historian, Chernow turned out to be surprisingly funny. There aren't too many comedians, after all, who could get laughs from a routine beginning with the phrase, "Let me tell you how Warren Harding got the Republican nomination in 1920." And yet, Chernow did.

It turned out that his appearance proved just the healing tonic that the battered press corps desperately needed. The organization's president, Olivier Knox, noted in his introduction to the evening that he and many of his colleagues have been the target of death threats. Journalists, especially of the foreign-correspondent variety, routinely face danger in their work. An example is Austin Tice, whose name was featured on pins handed out to the attendees. Tice, a former Marine officer and freelance journalist, was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and hasn't been seen since. Recent information has indicated he's possibly still alive, which is more than can be said for many other journalists who have sacrificed their lives reporting from dangerous parts of the globe.

What journalists definitely shouldn't have to face are threats of violence encouraged by a spineless demagogue of a president who is putting innocent lives at risk for the sole purpose of rallying his base. Chernow's chief contribution in his speech was to provide historical context, reminding us that this isn't the first time in our history that the First Amendment has been under attack. We have survived slavery, wars and the Great Depression, he pointed out. We can survive this.

His remarks were far from dry or academic, and were leavened with self-deprecating wit. "Here I am, your sedative for the evening," Chernow began, pointing out that he knew he wasn't approached for the gig because of his reputation as an "international sex symbol." His delivery was peppy and fast-paced, filled with relevant quotes such as, "People are taking their comedians seriously and their politicians as a joke." It could have been written yesterday, but it was actually uttered by Will Rogers nearly a century ago.

Referring to one of President Donald Trump's favorite insults, he reminded the audience that "Enemy of the People" is also the title of a Henrik Ibsen play about a doctor who becomes pilloried by his community when he attempts to warn the people of the very real dangers of the spa waters providing their fortunes. "I hadn't realized that the president was a student of Norwegian literature," Chernow joked, advising the beleaguered journalists, "Think of the term in the Norwegian sense and wear it as a badge of honor."

True to his profession, Chernow delivered a fascinating history lesson about the relationships between presidents and journalists, from George Washington to the present day. "They were inevitably tough and almost always adversarial, but they don't need to be steeped in venom," he pointed out. He also gave a plug to the historical figure who has provided him his biggest fame and fortune (while adding a not-so-subtle dig at Trump), describing Alexander Hamilton as "an immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full."

Chernow reminded us that many presidents have managed to succeed at their jobs without attacking the free press. He cited such examples as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who abandoned his predecessor's policy of requiring questions in advance and actually got a standing ovation at his first press conference, and John F. Kennedy, who brought a frequently self-deprecating wit to his parries with reporters. There have been plenty of exceptions, of course, such as Richard M. Nixon. But look how he turned out. (Trump's hostile attitude toward the press is something he has in common with Nixon, as well as a propensity for obstructing justice.)

"Be humble, be skeptical and be wary of being infected by the very things you're fighting against," Chernow counseled the journalists. He also quoted Warren Buffett's axiom: "Always take the high road, it's far less crowded there."  

The talk was inspiring and reassuring, and a welcome change from the enmity that has fueled the event in recent years. Chernow was smart enough, however, to go out with a joke, in this case one by Mark Twain: "Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason." He didn't need to add that that the country is currently saddled with a very dirty diaper.