Ron Chernow

AP Photo/Louis Lanzano, File

Ron Chernow To Speak At Next White House Correspondents' Dinner

November 19, 2018 - 3:22 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) -- Expect fewer laughs and less backlash at next year's White House Correspondent's Dinner.

The White House Correspondents' Association has decided to break from its tradition of having a comedian as speaker.

Instead it has booked Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow who wrote the book about Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit Broadway musical, "Hamilton."

At a time of increasingly tense relations between President Donald Trump and the White House press corps, Chernow said the association asked him to "make the case for the First Amendment and I am happy to oblige." He'll also share his perspective on American politics and history at the April 27 event in Washington, said Olivier Knox, the association's president.

“This change has been coming for a few years now,” explained Washington Post’s Reliable Source co-author Emily Heil. “There have been comedians who have come to this dinner in the past and made jokes that people have found very uncomfortable. I mean, Washington is a town, not really know for thick skins.”

"As we celebrate the importance of a free and independent news media to the health of the republic, I look forward to hearing Ron place this unusual moment in the context of American history," said Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM.

Chernow said "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," he said. "While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian, I promise that my history lesson won't be dry."

Last year, comedian Michelle Wolf drew sharp criticism for her jokes. The barbs took expected aim at the president and his inner circle, including his daughter. But they also mocked the appearance of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders who was in the audience.

Reaction to the selection of Chernow, who in the past has criticized Trump, appeared largely positive on Twitter — but Wolf was an exception.

"The @whca are cowards," she tweeted. "The media is complicit. And I couldn't be prouder."

Presidents traditionally attend the dinner. But Trump, who has a contentious relationship with journalists, skipped this year's event for the second straight year. The White House has not said whether Trump will attend next year.

“In the Trump years, it’s been a little more complicated because Trump himself hasn’t come to the dinner because, I think this would be a very uncomfortable dynamic for him,” Heil said, noting that it makes it harder for the comedian to make jokes about those who are not there to have an opportunity to retort.

Heil explained that while Chernow is a distinguished writer, the White House Correspondents Dinner is typically an opportunity for the press and administration to let loose and have fun. And as for Chernow, Heil believes he will not be the “attention-grabbing entertainment that people are looking for.”

However, like many of his fellow historians, Chernow strongly opposed Trump's election in 2016.

In a video message from that year, he spoke of being "disturbed" by the Trump campaign's "absence of anything that is not a glorification of money and power and might," adding that: "This emphasis has disturbing historical parallels."

Chernow said he was especially concerned by Trump's disregard for American history. When the past becomes a "blank slate," he said, "Donald Trump and any other demagogue can come along and write upon it whatever the hell he wants."

Chernow won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 biography of George Washington. 

The White House Correspondents' Association was founded in 1914 to represent the White House press corps. Dinner proceeds support scholarships for aspiring journalists, along with awards recognizing excellence in news coverage of the White House.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report)