Your required reading this morning is a column Sally Quinn wrote hack in November 1998 about how the Washington elite was coping with the unfolding l’affaire Lewinsky. You should read it this morning even if you’ve read it many times before. Once you do, its relevancy will be apparent to you.
It will help you understand the seemingly curious phenomenon you’re seeing in your social media feeds at the moment, where one Beltway insider after another races to defend the honor of Sarah Huckabee Sanders against the “mean” and “cruel” jokes that were told about her at last night’s Nerd Prom.
The comedienne hired for the occasion, Michelle Wolf, continued what is by now a well-established tradition. She accepted an invitation to appear at the White House Correspondents Dinner. She proceeded to point out how incredibly fucked up our politics have become and to point her finger at the primary culprits, including a supine media more interested in access and ratings than in telling truth to power. Her jokes were suitably biting, and not really intended to get laughs unless through cringing clenched teeth.
The guests of this annual gala should know this is coming because it happens every year. Some comics are funnier than others, but for the people in the audience it is an exercise in self-flagellation. And it’s not a good-humored roast, even if the jokes are often just as nasty. It’s a barely disguised bitter condemnation. Basically, they hire someone to come in and tell them how horrible they are.
Of course, the grimmer the picture in our capital at the time, the more brutal the act. Start a war based on lies and get hundreds of thousands of people killed while destabilizing a whole region? That gets you the Stephen Colbert treatment. Things have gotten worse since then.
But whatever faults President Trump may have and however deceitful and contemptuous his press secretary may be, they are citizens of The Village and there are limits on how much disrespect you can show them.
By taking some personal shots at Huckabee Sanders, Michelle Wolf caused a defensive reflex. In part, the correspondents are afraid that if the Trump administration doesn’t see a tweet in their feed in defense of Huckabee Sanders that there will be negative repercussions for their access. But it’s also just a standard part of this ritual. The comedian arrives, insults people primarily by telling the truth about them, then the media criticize the comedian for being impolite and not all that funny. They usually don’t express outrage about the shots that were aimed at them because that would draw more attention to those criticisms. Instead, they deflect people’s focus onto how the president or members of his administration were mistreated.
A lot has changed since Sally Quinn wrote that piece in 1998. For one, the Village had higher standards back then. They expected more from their president than tawdry furtive Oval Office blow jobs from unpaid interns. At this point, that kind of behavior would be a welcome improvement. Bush’s failures and Trump’s presidency have beaten them down.
But their world still revolves around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and they still want to maintain a certain majesty to the place bolstered by myths they feel morally and patriotically bound to concoct and promulgate. They know it’s a sham and that they deserve criticism for it, which is why they keep going back to Nerd Prom every year to get their dose of abuse.
While they were listening to Michelle Wolf tell them what shits they are last night in Washington DC, the president was telling them what shits they are in Washington Township in Michigan.
That they’re responding by defending the president’s press secretary shows less sense of self-awareness and preservation than Patty Hearst demonstrated during her Symbionese crime spree.