Why Presidents Skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Like Trump, some past presidents have grumbled about the annual event and the demands of the press.

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 1977.
AP Photo/John Duricka
Feb. 26, 2017, 8:50 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Trump’s ab­rupt de­cision to boy­cott the up­com­ing din­ner of the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation is un­ex­pec­ted, but it is not un­pre­ced­en­ted. Six of Trump’s pre­de­cessors skipped at least one of the din­ners dur­ing their terms in of­fice for reas­ons ran­ging from a death, an as­sas­sin­a­tion at­tempt, travel, and fa­tigue, to dis­taste for tuxedos and ill-dis­guised con­tempt for the re­port­ers who covered them.

None, of course, an­nounced his de­cision as pub­licly as Trump did with his 22-word, 137-char­ac­ter tweet sent out at 5 p.m. Sat­urday. The pre­vi­ous no-show pres­id­ents fol­lowed more tra­di­tion­al etiquette rules, send­ing notes ex­press­ing re­gret. Trump offered no re­grets, though he did cheer­ily con­clude his tweet with, “Please wish every­one well and have a great even­ing!”

Trump is the first pres­id­ent to miss the din­ner since Ron­ald Re­agan in 1981. Re­agan had a pretty un­as­sail­able ex­cuse—he had been shot in an as­sas­sin­a­tion at­tempt only 26 days earli­er, and he spent the night of the din­ner re­cu­per­at­ing at Camp Dav­id. Even ab­sent, he re­ceived a warm stand­ing ova­tion when he and first lady Nancy Re­agan phoned in to the din­ner, crack­ing jokes—and be­com­ing the first per­son to la­bel the event the cor­res­pond­ents’ “spring prom.”

The first pres­id­ent to at­tend the din­ner was Calv­in Coolidge in 1924, and the first pres­id­ent to miss the an­nu­al event was Her­bert Hoover in 1930. The pres­id­ent was about to leave for the din­ner at the Wil­lard Hotel when former Chief Justice and Pres­id­ent Wil­li­am Howard Taft un­ex­pec­tedly died. Hoover de­clared a peri­od of na­tion­al mourn­ing and skipped the din­ner so he could spend the even­ing with Taft’s wid­ow.

There is noth­ing sud­den about Trump’s sour view of the press. Com­ing at a time of rising ten­sion in the me­dia-White House re­la­tion­ship, the pres­id­ent’s likely reas­on for avoid­ing the din­ner is most re­min­is­cent of the real ra­tionale Pres­id­ents Richard Nix­on and Jimmy Carter had for snub­bing the din­ners in 1970, 1972, 1974, 1978, and 1980. Of­fi­cially, Nix­on missed the din­ners be­cause he was in Hawaii and the Ba­hamas, and Carter missed his be­cause he was “too tired” from his for­eign travels and was go­ing to be at Camp Dav­id fish­ing.

But they con­fessed the real reas­ons in their di­ar­ies and private memos. When he at­ten­ded the 1971 din­ner, Nix­on told the cor­res­pond­ents he wel­comed their cri­ti­cism and viewed the an­nu­al din­ner as “not only part of the job, but … good for the pres­id­ent and good for the coun­try.” As he walked out mo­ments later, he told an aide he had “hated every one” of the din­ners.

When he got back to the White House, he fired off a scath­ing memo blast­ing his staff for send­ing him there to demon­strate that he was “a good sport.” The din­ner, he wrote, was “the worst” he had ever at­ten­ded. “The audi­ence was drunk, crude and ter­ribly cruel.” The re­port­ers were “dis­gust­ing,” and the din­ner was “three hours of pure bore­dom and in­sults.” He told his staff that “un­der ab­so­lutely no cir­cum­stances will I at­tend any more din­ners of this type in the fu­ture. I will not go to the Grid­iron, the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ or the Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion Cor­res­pond­ents’ din­ners next year.”

Sev­en years later, Carter was al­most as scath­ing about the re­port­ers. Pub­licly, press sec­ret­ary Jody Pow­ell said the pres­id­ent was tired and not feel­ing well. In Carter’s di­ary, he offered a dif­fer­ent reas­on. “Jody’s beg­ging me to speak to the White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ ban­quet. My pref­er­ence is not to do so,” wrote Carter on April 25, 1978. “They are com­pletely ir­re­spons­ible and un­ne­ces­sar­ily ab­us­ive. I see no reas­on for us to ac­com­mod­ate them every time they want me to provide en­ter­tain­ment for a half hour.”

Four days later, Carter again wrote about the din­ner, not­ing that there had been news­pa­per cri­ti­cism of his de­cision. He was un­deterred. “I was de­term­ined not to go. They al­most ex­ert black­mail on me to at­tend, but I am not go­ing to do it in the fu­ture. I don’t see how the White House press could be any more neg­at­ive un­der any cir­cum­stances and I’d rather show a sign of strength.”

Pres­id­ent Dwight Eis­en­hower had dis­played no sim­il­ar hos­til­ity to the press. His fre­quent no-shows more re­flec­ted his dis­in­terest in Wash­ing­ton so­cial events, par­tic­u­larly on week­ends. He wrote about it in his di­ary on Jan. 18, 1954. Mem­bers of the press, he wrote, “are far from be­ing as im­port­ant as they them­selves con­sider, but, on the oth­er hand, they have a suf­fi­cient im­port­ance … to in­sure that much gov­ern­ment time is con­sumed in court­ing fa­vor with them.” He ad­ded in par­en­thes­is, “For ex­ample, I am right now sched­uled to go to a cock­tail party—something I have not at­ten­ded in twenty years—for the Wash­ing­ton press corps. … I am to drop in for the pur­pose, I sup­pose, of show­ing that I am not too high-hat to do so.” A friend in the press corps wrote that rather than don­ning a tuxedo and spend­ing a night with re­port­ers, Ike’s pre­ferred night would be just him “and Mrs. Eis­en­hower eat­ing on trays be­fore the tele­vi­sion screen, for they are both fans.”

The WHCA went to great lengths to make its din­ners more at­tract­ive to Ike dur­ing his two terms. The or­gan­iz­a­tion moved the din­ner to week­days to leave him free week­ends to go to his Gettys­burg farm, and moved it from its tra­di­tion­al March date one year so it would co­in­cide with his Oc­to­ber birth­day; at­tendees sang old Army dit­ties one year; and the group used one din­ner to de­but a new cam­paign song writ­ten for him by Irving Ber­lin. In 1960, the WHCA can­celed the din­ner be­cause he wouldn’t be at­tend­ing.

In Decem­ber 1964, Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son’s staff gave him a note telling him the WHCA would can­cel its 1965 din­ner if he didn’t at­tend. LBJ put a big check mark on “No.” He scrawled on the note, “I went to all [the press din­ners] last year. I want to go to none this year.” For em­phas­is, he un­der­lined “none” four times. Spec­u­la­tion at the time was that he was self-con­scious about at­tempts to match the wit­ti­cisms of Pres­id­ent John F. Kennedy. “When LBJ … at­tempts a flight of hu­mor,” wrote one crit­ic at the time, “no one can be cer­tain wheth­er it is go­ing to get air­borne or end in a crash land­ing.” When John­son re­jec­ted the 1965 in­vit­a­tion, a cor­res­pond­ent wrote, “The big press din­ners ob­vi­ously bore him. He was no­ticed fall­ing asleep at last year’s White House cor­res­pond­ents’ din­ner.”

Just as the 1965 din­ner was can­celed be­cause of the pres­id­ent’s re­fus­al to at­tend, the din­ners in both 1951 and 1952 were can­celed be­cause of what Pres­id­ent Tru­man called “the un­cer­tainty of the world situ­ation” and the Korean War. The WHCA is­sued a state­ment say­ing, “Tak­ing in­to con­sid­er­a­tion the pres­id­ent’s ap­peals for ad­di­tion­al sac­ri­fice on the part of all Amer­ic­ans, of­fices of the as­so­ci­ation de­cided un­an­im­ously that a ban­quet would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate at this time.”

This year, Trump is not call­ing on the cor­res­pond­ents to sac­ri­fice, and the WHCA board has made clear it will pro­ceed with the planned din­ner on April 29.

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