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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