The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has generated its share of funny, unexpected and uncomfortable moments over the years. Following are five memorable highlights that played a role in cementing the dinner as a legendary annual event.
1. The George W. Bush and Ozzy Moment
The year was 2002 and the unified spirit that enveloped Washington in the wake of the 9/11 attacks still lingered as the masses gathered at the Washington Hilton for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. President George W. Bush was at the dais, along with several of his cabinet members and other administration officials. The featured entertainment for the evening was comedian Drew Carey and celebrities including Harrison Ford and Christie Brinkley were in attendance. But heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne, a guest of Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, was the real draw of the event. His MTV reality television show, “The Osbournes,” was capturing the attention of the country, and even President Bush couldn’t resist the pull of America’s sudden and most unlikely celebrity. “The thing about Ozzy is he’s made a lot of big hit recordings,” Bush said as he gave the singer a shout-out during his remarks. “’Party With Animals,’ ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ ‘Face in Hell,’ ‘Black Skies’ and ‘Bloodbath in Paradise’…Ozzy, mom loves your stuff.” Osbourne responded by standing on his chair, arms raised and shouting as the audience howled and applauded.
2. Bill Clinton’s Farewell
The Clinton presidency had its share of drama, and at his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2000, President Bill Clinton was determined to prove he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. Known for being more effective than most at leveraging pre-produced videos, starting with the “Man From Hope” bio produced for his 1992 campaign, Clinton rolled out the tactic one more time for the 2000 dinner. Casting the president as a down-and-out lame duck who has been deserted by nearly everyone in the White House, including his Senate-bound wife, the video showed Clinton aimlessly roaming the halls of the executive mansion, giving press briefings to a sleeping Helen Thomas and pruning shrubs. Still, the president found joy – and success – by the end of the video: discovering eBay, launching golf shots at political opponents’ cars and finding a way to cheat the vending machines for some free ice cream. The crowd of reporters, editors, business leaders and celebrities in the room roared their approval.
3. Stephen Colbert’s Scolding
The mood of the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner was tenser than President Bush’s first dinner in 2001. Cast in the shadow of the ongoing war, the President tried to set the tone by poking some fun at himself alongside Bush impersonator Steve Bridges (who served as Bush’s “internal voice”). However, the post-dinner buzz was focused on Stephen Colbert’s stinging indictment of both the president and the press. Appearing in character, Colbert started out by likening himself to the president, alluding to the perception that both made decisions from their “gut,” not beholden to the “reality” based “factinista.” He then turned his sights on the press, which, as an entity, had recently come under withering criticism for its coverage of the buildup to war. Colbert explained the “rules” of covering the president: “The president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know – fiction.”
4. Obama Takes on Trump
While best known as a reality TV personality in 2011, Donald Trump was also raising his political profile. One of the ways he was doing this was by vocalizing his support of the “birther” movement that questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. Dipping his toes in the political waters at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Trump would quickly find himself in the spotlight. As President Barack Obama launched into a roast of Trump that lasted several months, Trump stared straight ahead with a stern look on his face. The presentation included Obama’s “official birth video” (footage from the Lion King), and then Seth Meyers continued lambasting Trump with his own series of jokes. While Trump had hinted at running for president many times over the last few decades, some people suggest this may have been the moment that spurred him to launch his campaign.
5. Reagan Dials Into the Dinner
Donald Trump wasn’t the first Republican president to miss a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In 1981, Ronald Reagan wasn’t able to attend the annual event, but not for political reasons. He was still recovering from the assassination attempt made on his life just weeks before – at the same location. However, he did phone into the dinner to offer his thanks and brief remarks for the attendees. His advice for the dinner crowd: “When somebody tells you to get in a car quick, do it.” White House Press Secretary James Brady’s wife, Sarah, was in attendance, and Nancy Reagan got on the phone to share a moment. “Sarah, you remember those days in the hospital when you and I had many conversations. And we both agreed that you and I, from now on, had a bond that was very special and that nobody could ever break…I know that both our fellows are going to make it, and I send you and Jim all my love.”