Historian Ron Chernow took the podium on Saturday, April 27, to deliver the keynote of the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a post traditionally occupied by a professional comedian.
The Alexander Hamilton biographer didn’t strike as contentious a tone as his predecessor, Michelle Wolf, but he did deliver some political zingers throughout his remarks on the First Amendment – many of them aimed at the absent president and his treatment of the media. Here’s a blow-by-blow of Chernow’s best lines.
On his unexpected speaking gig:
“I confess that I was surprised when I received the invitation to speak here tonight — I knew they weren’t approaching me as an international sex symbol. Then Oliver [Knox, the White House Correspondents’ Association president] told me that they wanted to try ‘boring’ at this year’s dinner and I said, “Oh, I can deliver on that big time….” So here I am, your 20-minute sedative for the evening.”
On the Trump administration’s going AWOL for the event:
“On Tuesday the president let it be known that he wanted members of his administration to stay away from this dinner, and at first I was puzzled by this news. But then I learned that a rumor was circulating around Washington that I would be reading aloud from the redacted portions of the Mueller report and everything was explained.”
On George Washington’s legacy (and Trump’s Mount Vernon tour):
“As best I can tell Washington committed only one major blunder as president: He failed to put his name on Mount Vernon and therefore bungled an early opportunity at branding. Clearly deficient in the Art of the Deal, the poor man had to settle for the lowly title of ‘Father of His Country.’ A very sad story.”
On Alexander Hamilton:
“Our founders were highly literate people, and perhaps none more so than one Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full.” [Sadly, the “Hamilton” cast did not then appear on the dais for a performance.]
On the importance of facts:
“I applaud any president who aspires to the Nobel Prize for Peace, but we don’t want one in the running for the Nobel Prize for Fiction.”
Chernow’s speech had a few yucks, but its overall message of keeping the First Amendment sacrosanct drew the biggest applause. Knowing his strengths, Chernow delivered something a comic couldn’t: A history of how presidents navigate the media and the political consequences faced by those chief executives who strive to punish or limit the free press.
Donald Trump is not the first president to be hostile to news organizations, Chernow noted, but the climate our 45th commander in chief presides over is uniquely troubling – though not without hope.
“Our precious republic feels fragile, even perishable at the moment,” Chernow said from the lectern. “And after the shooting at the synagogue near San Diego today our civil society feels fragile as well. I shudder at the sheer savagery to which Washington politics has descended, but we’ve also seen the wisdom of our Constitution at work with a boldly assertive press, an independent judiciary and a rejuvenated Congress providing checks on Executive power. We’re being fiercely tested, but I like to think that decency will prevail.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.