WASHINGTON — President Trump may have succeeded in drawing attention to a rally on the same night as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, but the annual Beltway event went on as if it didn’t matter that the administration was boycotting it.

At the Washington Hilton, there were few celebrities, not even that many elected officials and this year, there wasn’t even a comedian. But the event still sold out, a tight fit in the oval-shaped ballroom.

Instead, it was historian Ron Chernow, the author of “Alexander Hamilton,” on which the Broadway sensation was based, and his 30-minute keynote was humorous, insightful and even inspirational. He drew two standing ovations as he put in historical context the Trump presidency and what he called “this surreal interlude in American life.”

“Now are best as I can tell, Washington committed only one major blunder as president: He failed to put his name on Mount Rushmore and thereby bungled an early opportunity at branding,” he quipped. It was a reference to a Politico story about Trump’s remarked that Washington should have named his home after himself.

Last year’s featured entertainer, Michelle Wolf, proved to be too much for a number of journalists and D.C. politicos, as she directed her provocative humor at some of those who were in attendance, including White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway.

Chernow may not have been as biting as Wolf, but he still was critical of Trump, particularly for his attacks on the media and for contributing to a “rising tide of misinformation” that “threatens to make a mockery of the First Amendment.”

After a few self-deprecating remarks, Chernow told the story of a Norwegian tale called “Enemy of the People” – a not-so-subtle jab at Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric – in which a man is punished by his village for speaking an unpalatable truth, and likened the character’s plight to those of journalists.

“Campaigns against the press do not get your face carved on Mount Rushmore,” Chernow said. “But when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy.”

Chernow stressed that Trump wasn’t the first American president (“and won’t be the last”) to have “jitters” about the media, before noting this country’s “best presidents” who have handled the press with “wit, grace, charm and humor.”

The historian’s speech, which championed a free press and more unified nation, quoted everyone from James Madison to Martin Luther King to Mark Twain.

“Whether Democrats or Republicans, we are all members of bonafide USA and not members of enemy camps,” he said.

As unprecedented as Trump’s attacks on the media have been, Chernow also cautioned that the role of the press should not be different than it has been for Trump’s predecessors. In other words, the news media is not the opposition party, but there to report the facts and the truth, and perhaps a history lesson is a bit more fitting for the times than a standup comedy act.

Quoting Will Rogers, Chernow said, “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

Some Hollywood figures did make the event, like James L. Brooks and “House of Cards” star Michael Kelly. So was Rob Goldstone, the music publicist who arranged the Trump Tower meeting, the subject of a significant chunk of the Mueller report.

And despite the Trump administration boycott of the dinner, some Trump associates did attend other events. Conway and Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, were at the annual Garden Brunch on Saturday, a mix of media celebrities, lawmakers and business executives. Also at the event, held at the Beall-Washington House in Georgetown, was Rod Rosenstein, the recently departed deputy attorney general.

For a few moments Rosenstein chatted with Jay Leno, who was there to help honor military veterans. Leno presented an award to Master Sgt. Angela Morales-Biggs.

Leno, too, noted the talk that this year was “painfully slow on celebrities. Pretty much reached the bottom of the barrel here. ‘Well, let’s get Leno. He’ll come in!.’”

On Friday, UTA and Mediate hosted an event that drew many of the agency’s news clients, as well as former Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Jordan Klepper and Minnie Driver. The TV show “Extra” was covering the event, but its special correspondent was Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, and he interviewed such figures as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for several minutes. If this year didn’t have quite the glitz and glam of years past, they’ll make due.

 

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