Ron Chernow Says Press Has "Always Been Fighting for the Soul of America" in WHCD Address

The presidential biographer's speech embedded small zingers about President Donald Trump and nodded to the fact that the WHCA had broken with tradition by not enlisting a comedian for the speech.

White House Correspondents' Dinner featured speaker Ron Chernow on Saturday night slammed Washington's current "savagery" and the White House's sustained anti-press campaigns in his speech, while also reminding the media members, politicians and Hollywood stars in attendance that presidents and the press have had an adversarial relationship before.

The presidential biographer's speech kicked off with a nod to the White House Correspondents' Association change-up in speaker this year: Chernow replaced the dinner's traditional comedian monologue after Michelle Wolf's speech at last year's dinner, which sparked controversy. The White House Correspondents' Association and several journalists criticized the speech, which the WHCA called "not in the spirit" of the mission of the event. 

"I confess I was surprised" by the invitation to speak, Chernow said. "I knew they weren't approaching me as an international sex symbol, right? Then [WHCA president] Olivier [Knox] said they wanted to deliver 'boring' at this year's ceremony. I thought, 'Oh, I can deliver on that big time.'" He then joked that he would be a "20-minute sedative" for the audience.

Chernow additionally addressed criticism from comedians that the WHCA would not invite one of their ranks to speak in 2019. "There's been some squawking from the comedians, and I'm sorry about that. I thought they would have some more humor about my selection — after all, they are comedians," he joked. He then added that he was reminded of a saying: "'People are taking their comedians seriously, and their politicians as a joke,' and that certainly describes our topsy-turvy political moment."

The speech embedded small zingers about the president, starting off with a joke that to research his audience for the speech, Chernow started reading Henrik Ibsen's play Enemy of the People, referring to a Trump name for the press. Alexander Hamilton, he said at one point, entered the country as an immigrant "before it was full."

The main theme of his speech, though, was that relations between the president and the press are often "adversarial" but "don't need to be steeped in venom," said Chernow, before launching into a short history lesson. George Washington, he said, felt "maligned and misunderstood" by the press, but never "generalized that into a vendetta against the institution." John Adams criminalized "seditious" writing about the president from journalists but, as Chernow reminded the audience, he lost he reelection campaign in part because of it.

"Campaigns against the press don't get your face carved into Mount Rushmore, for when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy," he asserted. 

Chernow said in a refrain for the evening, "People say now we're fighting for the soul of America, but we've always been fighting for the soul of America. … America has always been a work in progress." Though today's political rhetoric in Washington has been characterized by "savagery" and Chernow said he thought the U.S. was being "seriously tested," he maintained the country will prevail, as it always has. Chernow reminded listeners that the U.S. had survived major mistakes before, including the Scottsboro Boys, the Japanese internment camps and Joseph McCarthy.

The key, Chernow said, was that "America has always been at its greatest, not when it boasted, not when it blustered, but when it admitted its mistakes and sought to overcome them."

After providing some examples of when U.S. presidents and the press had treated each other with "civility," he offered a message to journalists to continue to prize facts and precision even when they felt they were under attack. 

"Beware of being the very things you're fighting against. The press is a powerful weapon that must always be fired with precision," said Chernow. "This is a glorious tradition — you folks are part of it, and we can't have politicians trampling on it with impunity." The only defense against an attack on the media, he added, was "solid, fair-minded and energetic reporting." Then, because he said he wasn't a comedian, he ended the speech with some comedic quotes from Mark Twain. 

Chernow has penned biographies including 2004's Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster musical Hamilton; Washington: A Life (2010); Grant (2017); and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (2004), among other titles. Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in early talks to adapt Grant into a feature-length biopic after DiCaprio's Appian Way shingle acquired rights to the biography. 

"Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics. My major worry these days is that we Americans will forget who we are as a people, and historians should serve as our chief custodians in preserving that rich storehouse of memory," Chernow said in a statement when he was announced as featured speaker in November. "While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian, I promise that my history lesson won't be dry."

Wolf responded to the announcement on Twitter by calling the WHCA "cowards." "The @whca are cowards. The media is complicit. And I couldn't be prouder," said the comedian.

The most recent hosts of the dinner include Wolf, Hasan Minaj (2017), Larry Wilmore (2016), Cecily Strong (2015), Joel McHale (2014), Conan O'Brien (2013), Jimmy Kimmel (2012), Seth Meyers (2011) and Jay Leno (2010).