The Strangest White House Correspondents’ Dinner Ever

This image can only be used with the George Condon piece that originally ran in the 4/25/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Our country is going to be... the arsenal of democracy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed in his speech before the White House News Correspondents' Association in Washington on March 15, 1941. He spoke by radio to the nation, and the speech was rebroadcast on foreign channels.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

On Sat­urday, March 15, 1941, Pres­id­ent Frank­lin D. Roosevelt ar­rived at the Wil­lard Hotel at 7 p.m. and was greeted by the U.S. Navy Band, which played “Hail to the Chief” and “An­chors Aweigh.” He was then moved from his wheel­chair in­to a spe­cial chair brought over from 1600 Pennsylvania Av­en­ue for the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation’s an­nu­al din­ner. Seated between out­go­ing as­so­ci­ation Pres­id­ent Thomas F. Reyn­olds of United Press, and his suc­cessor, John C. O’Bri­en of The Phil­adelphia In­quirer, Roosevelt laughed at the re­port­ers’ jokes and sang along loudly when George H. O’Con­nor crooned his usu­al med­ley of Ir­ish and pop­u­lar songs. While Roosevelt ate South Amer­ic­an hon­ey­dew, su­preme of sea bass Vic­tor­ia au crouton, and breast of guinea hen forestière, the Navy Band played and a chor­us from the Nav­al School of Mu­sic sang. Then came a faux news­reel pro­duced by Para­mount, which in­cluded a seg­ment mak­ing fun of the Lend-Lease Act de­bate. It was nine months be­fore Pearl Har­bor.

The film ended at 9:30. Time for the pres­id­ent to take the spot­light. And rad­ic­ally change the mood. It was time to talk of war, on what was to be­come, and re­mains today, the strangest — and most im­port­ant — night in the din­ner’s his­tory.

When Pres­id­ent Obama strides to the mi­cro­phone at the Wash­ing­ton Hilton this Sat­urday, he’ll be go­ing for laughs. He’ll be pok­ing fun both at him­self and his polit­ic­al foes. No one ex­pects him to ad­dress the na­tion. Or prom­ise high­er taxes. Or call for sac­ri­fice. But that’s what Roosevelt did, boldly us­ing the din­ner to pre­pare the na­tion for entry in­to World War II. And, al­though the event was opened to live TV cov­er­age when I was vice pres­id­ent of the as­so­ci­ation in 1993 (I’m now the un­of­fi­cial his­tor­i­an) and has since be­come a cable fix­ture, 74 years later, no White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ Din­ner has drawn a lar­ger broad­cast audi­ence than the one held on that pre-tele­vi­sion, pre-In­ter­net night.

The cor­res­pond­ents back then cer­tainly didn’t fore­see how im­port­ant the even­ing would turn out to be. They thought the event they were sta­ging would be just like the 19 be­fore it — an all-male gath­er­ing for an ami­able mélange of soar­ing op­era, naughty bal­lads, gag news­reels, hearty laughter, and gen­er­ous drink­ing.

But that all changed about 30 hours be­fore the din­ner, when the cor­res­pond­ents gathered in the Oval Of­fice for a pres­id­en­tial press con­fer­ence, and FDR asked if he could make a na­tion­ally broad­cast ad­dress at their din­ner. Three days earli­er, he had signed in­to law his much-de­bated Lend-Lease Act, per­mit­ting him to send badly needed aid, mu­ni­tions, and equip­ment to Bri­tain, China, the So­viet Uni­on, and oth­er coun­tries un­der siege by Nazi Ger­many and Ja­pan. Now, he wanted to tell the na­tion — and the world — what it meant.

The as­so­ci­ation’s pres­id­ent had no idea how to host an even­ing that would now be an odd mix of slap­stick and earn­est talk of war.

Reyn­olds had no choice but to let FDR speak at the din­ner, though back then pres­id­ents typ­ic­ally didn’t. But he had no idea how to pro­ceed with an even­ing that now would be an odd mix of slap­stick and earn­est talk of war. He re­solved simply to work the en­ter­tain­ers in around the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress.

Ar­rayed in front of Roosevelt were 21 long tables but­ting against an ex­ten­ded head table where 73 VI­Ps were seated, in­clud­ing Vice Pres­id­ent Henry Wal­lace, mem­bers of the Cab­in­et, the House speak­er, and the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er. The oth­er 600 guests in­cluded top pub­lish­ers and ra­dio ex­ec­ut­ives, big names from the en­ter­tain­ment and busi­ness worlds, and some two dozen law­makers. But giv­en the top­ic of Roosevelt’s ad­dress, the more news­worthy guests in­cluded Vis­count Hal­i­fax, the new Brit­ish am­bas­sad­or; Otto G. Janssen, con­su­lar sec­ret­ary at the Ger­man Em­bassy; and Ka­name Wakas­ugi, min­is­ter-coun­selor in the Ja­pan­ese Em­bassy.

Over at Table 6, 32-year-old Rep. Lyn­don B. John­son of Texas was seated across from Kurt Sell of the Ger­man news bur­eau. Be­fore com­ing to the din­ner, Sell — a roly-poly, friendly reg­u­lar at FDR’s press con­fer­ences who was known to some as “Hitler’s press agent” — dic­tated an ad­vance copy of Roosevelt’s ad­dress to Ber­lin by phone. He then watched the early en­ter­tain­ment and ate. But colum­nist Ray­mond Clap­per re­por­ted that Sell “is a gen­tle­man and quietly left a few mo­ments be­fore Mr. Roosevelt spoke.”

The pres­id­ent star­ted al­most cas­u­ally. “This din­ner of the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation is unique,” he said. “It is the first one at which I have made a speech in all these eight years. It dif­fers from the press con­fer­ences that you and I hold twice a week, for you can­not ask me any ques­tions to­night and everything that I have to say is word for word on the re­cord.” (Most of Roosevelt’s press con­fer­ences could be used for back­ground in­form­a­tion only.)

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He then shif­ted in­to a somber as­sess­ment of the state of the war: “The world is no longer in doubt. This de­cision is the end of any at­tempts at ap­pease­ment in our land, the end of ur­ging us to get along with dic­tat­ors, the end of com­prom­ise with tyranny and the forces of op­pos­i­tion.”

Lest there be any con­fu­sion about wheth­er neut­ral­ity had been set aside, he said: “The con­cepts of ‘busi­ness as usu­al,’ of ‘nor­malcy,’ must be for­got­ten un­til the task is fin­ished. Yes, it is an all-out ef­fort, and noth­ing short of an all-out ef­fort will win.” Then, his voice rising, the pres­id­ent called on Amer­ic­ans to “make sac­ri­fices,” warn­ing them, “you will feel the im­pact of this gi­gant­ic ef­fort in your daily lives.”

The Brit­ish Broad­cast­ing Cor­por­a­tion made the speech its top item in all home and over­seas broad­casts, trans­lat­ing it in­to 34 lan­guages. It was not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion when Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Barnet Nover wrote that night that Roosevelt’s “voice reached out to every corner of the con­tin­ent and to the out­er-most ends of the earth.”

The re­ac­tion from abroad was swift. “Thank you, Amer­ica,” gushed one BBC an­noun­cer. “All in Bri­tain who listened to the pres­id­ent’s speech were so filled with emo­tion that we would be un­able to say more than just a plain simple ‘thank you.’” In China, Gen­er­alis­simo Chi­ang Kai-shek thanked FDR, say­ing the people of China were “im­meas­ur­ably heartened.” In Yugoslavia, pa­pers prin­ted the speech in full.

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Jay Flippen, a vaudevillian, popular singer, Broadway actor, and sometime radio voice of the New York Yankees, emceed the dinner. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) Getty Images

It quickly be­came clear that the Ax­is lead­ers of Ger­many, Ja­pan, and Italy also were listen­ing. Roosevelt topped all the front pages in Tokyo. “This ra­bid speech con­firms that the United States has at last come for­ward on the act­ive stage of the World War,” wrote Asahi, a Ja­pan­ese news­pa­per. In Italy, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment con­cluded, “The United States is now at war with the Ax­is.” Jay Flip­pen, a vaudevil­lian, pop­u­lar sing­er, Broad­way act­or, and some­time ra­dio voice of the New York Yan­kees, em­ceed the din­ner. (Sil­ver Screen Col­lec­tion/Getty Im­ages)

The speech also af­fected the as­sembled cor­res­pond­ents. While today’s journ­al­ists are trained nev­er to re­act to a politi­cian’s sub­stant­ive re­marks, the re­port­ers at that din­ner in­ter­rup­ted the 35-minute speech 34 times with ap­plause that of­ten in­cluded whoops and cheers. But when it was done, and Roosevelt turned the mi­cro­phone over to em­cee Jay Flip­pen, a vaudevil­lian, pop­u­lar sing­er, Broad­way act­or, and some­time ra­dio voice of the New York Yan­kees, the cor­res­pond­ents did not rush to their type­writers. They poured more drinks, lit more ci­gar­ettes, and settled back for the rest of the en­ter­tain­ment. A ma­gi­cian. A har­mon­ica artist. A fla­menco dan­cer. An op­era sing­er. A blues sing­er. A comedi­an. The show las­ted a full hour. FDR and the re­port­ers stayed for it all, as the more than 100 mil­lion who had heard the ra­dio broad­cast ab­sorbed what they had learned.

There would be no din­ner in 1942. In­stead, there would be war. And many in the cor­res­pond­ents’ ranks — in­clud­ing O’Bri­en, who had that night been in­stalled as the as­so­ci­ation’s pres­id­ent — would be in uni­form.

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