The White House Correspondents’ Association on Monday said presidential biographer Ron Chernow will be the featured speaker at the group’s annual dinner in April, opting against the usual choice of a comedian as tensions between the Trump administration and press remain high.
Chernow is expected to speak about freedom of the press at the dinner on April 27, the association said.
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“Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to basics,” Chernow said in a statement.
The association usually asks a comedian to headline the dinner. In 2018, however, comedian Michelle Wolf received intense backlash from the White House and some in the media, particularly for a series of jokes about press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
President Donald Trump criticized Wolf’s performance following the dinner, saying the group should change the format or end the dinner entirely. The president has skipped the dinner for two straight years. The change also comes as the dinner has become less of a draw for Hollywood stars than it was during the administration of President Barack Obama.
Tensions between the White House and the press corps have remained strained, particularly since the White House revoked access from CNN correspondent Jim Acosta. The administration now says it’s writing rules for reporters’ behavior at White House events.
Chernow, who wrote a biography of Alexander Hamilton and consulted for the Broadway play “Hamilton,” acknowledged in the statement Monday that he was a different kind of speaker, saying, “While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian, I promise that my history lesson won’t be dry.”
“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,” said Chernow, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for biography for his book about the first U.S. president.
Chernow during the 2016 election said he was disturbed by Trump’s campaign and feared that Americans “can forget who we are as a people and succumb to historical amnesia.”
“Make no mistake about it, when the past is scrubbed clean and American history becomes a blank slate, Donald Trump or any other demagogue can come along and write upon it whatever the hell he wants. And that disturbs me most of all,” he said in a video posted on Facebook. “Please, please, please folks, don’t let it happen here.”
Olivier Knox, chief Washington correspondent for SiriusXM and president of the WHCA, said in a statement that he’s excited for Chernow to share “his lively, deeply researched perspectives on American politics and history.”
“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,” Knox said.
Following the announcement, some comedians criticized the decision.
“The @whca are cowards. The media is complicit. And I couldn’t be prouder,” Wolf wrote in a tweet.
Comedian W. Kamau Bell, who hosts a CNN series entitled “United Shades of America,” said no comedian would have taken the job this year, given the association’s treatment of Wolf after the last dinner. The group’s president at the time, Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev, said Wolf’s monologue “was not in the spirit” of the association’s mission.
“After the way the WHCA & many journalists talked about Michelle Wolf, it was official that no comedian worth a damn would take this gig,” he tweeted.