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Historian Ron Chernow celebrates journalists at White House Correspondents' Dinner

Historian Ron Chernow at WHCD

The White House Correspondents' Dinner went on as usual on Saturday night, despite the absence for the third year in a row of President Trump, who held a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, instead. But in a departure from the comedians that traditionally follow the president, historian Ron Chernow delivered a history-filled keynote speech that contemplated the relationship of past presidents with the press. 

Chernow's address wasn't lacking in humor, however. He told the audience of journalists that he had done his research -- by reading Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's play, "An Enemy of the People," which is the way President Trump frequently refers to the press that covers him. "I had no idea the president was a fan of Norwegian literature," he quipped.

The play is about a man who discovers the spa water in his town is tainted, and when he tries to save the town from the water pollution, he's attacked by everyone in the town. Nonetheless, he remains committed to the truth.

Chernow advised journalists that when the president slams them with the phrase again, "please think of it in the Norwegian sense and wear it as a badge of honor."

Author and historian Ron Chernow speaks at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington
Author and historian Ron Chernow speaks at the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington on Sat., April 27, 2019. Reuters

He received a standing ovation after running through a list of journalists' accomplishments, declaring "This is a glorious tradition -- you folks are a part of it, and we can't have politicians trampling on it with impunity." 

Chernow discussed the Founding Fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, the subject of his famous book "Hamilton," and President George Washington, both of whom had a complicated relationship with the press. He made a few jokes comparing Washington to Mr. Trump, saying Washington was somewhat "deficient in the art of the deal -- the poor man had to settle for being the father of his country." He also dryly noted that the nation's first president had, in calling his home Mount Vernon, missed a prime branding opportunity. 

On Washington's relationship with the press, Chernow said, "Like every great president, Washington felt maligned and misunderstood the press, but he never generalized that into a vendetta," Chernow said. 

Chernow observed of Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies, that he was "an immigrant who arrived, thank God, before the country was full. I don't know why they let the guy in. Someone must have slipped-up at the southern border."

Last year's speech at the WHCA dinner, by comedian Michelle Wolf, was criticized by the Trump administration and also by members of the press. Wolf's routine featured fierce jokes about Mr. Trump, his children and top members of his administration, including White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was sitting on the dais as Wolf mocked her as a liar. 

"I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies. It's probably lies," Wolf said last year. "And I'm never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you know? Is it Sarah Sanders, is it Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is it Cousin Huckabee, is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? Like, what's Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?" 

Wolf had also called out the White House reporters at the dinner, saying they were "obsessed" with Mr. Trump and benefited from covering him. "You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him," Wolf said.

Her jokes mostly drew cheers and applause from the crowd, but the response from the media and politicians was more sharply divided afterward. Mr. Trump called Wolf a "filthy 'comedian'" on Twitter and said the dinner was "DEAD as we know it." In an August press briefing, Sanders cited Wolf's routine as one of the reasons she wouldn't disavow Mr. Trump for calling the media "the enemy of the people." 

Wolf said in an interview with NPR's "Fresh Air" in May that she "wouldn't change a word" of her performance. "I'm very happy with what I said, and I'm glad I stuck to my guns," she said.

Jason Silverstein, Emily Tillett and Grace Segers contributed to this report.

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