The Day that Changed America:
The 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner
Some might conceive of history as a an infinite line of dominos. I like to think of it as an endlessly complicated Rube Goldberg machine, where one small action can whiplash in the silliest of ways into events of the greatest magnitude.
Case in point: the Presidency of Donald Trump.
It might be easy to look back on the 2016 election and reduce Trump’s motivation to pure ego: he just loved hearing himself talk.
Sure, Trump’s narcissism knows no bounds, but I think that he was, at least partially, motivated by another factor: revenge.
You see, back in the early spring of 2011, the next year’s Presidential campaign was just starting to get under way. The Republican field was forming around a motley crew that hoped to demagogue their way past Mr. Hope and Change himself and into the White House.
The turd in the bunch bowl, as always, was Donald Trump. He was openly toying with the idea of running for the Republican nomination, and chose as his signature issue the nakedly racist conspiracy known as “birtherism.” To put it bluntly, birthers, Trump loudest among them, openly doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Absurd on its face, the conspiracy theory nevertheless gained traction on the fringes of the conservative electorate.
Though baseless, the controversy simmered until the White House released the “long form” copy of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate on April 27, 2011. The timing was impeccable, as the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner was scheduled to happen three days later. One of the guests? Donald J. Trump himself.
Meanwhile, in a secret known only to a select few, Obama had ordered Navy Seals to conduct Operation “Neptune’s Spear,” better known as the Bin Laden raid. The raid would take place the day after the Correspondent’s Dinner in what would become one of the most memorable days in recent American history.
And so, Saturday April 30, 2011 was that rare occasion when multiple threads of history converged in a single moment, and it did not disappoint.
0:00-1:00 – Obama is introduced with a birth certificate themed montage of certified Americana. Perfect. Just perfect.
1:04 – Look at that smile. Please come back.
“It all goes back and back," Tyrion thought, "to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads.” - George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
1:30 – “My fellow Americans,” he says with a smirk. Can we take a moment to note what a class act Obama is/was? For years Trump and Fox News peddled a crackpot conspiracy theory to a certain segment of the population, among whom it was transparently designed to stoke the dark underbelly of racism. A lesser man would have told them all to go fuck themselves, but Obama took it in stride, with grace and a smile.
2:08 – That’s about as close as Obama gets to dropping the mic, which he actually would do at his last WHCD in 2016.
2:09 – The first Trump sighting. Ugh. Like Lot’s wife, his grotesque coiffure is frozen in hairspray before the Sodom and Gomorrah of his own soul.
2:37 – Trump, blissful as ever in ignorance, still has no earthly idea what’s about to hit him.
3:24 – So fucking good. I’ll pause here so that you can devour The Lion King soundtrack.
…ready? Let’s continue.
3:30 – You can tell by the applause that people have been wanting Donald Trump to shut the fuck up for many years before 2016.
3:47 – I’m not exaggerating when I say that Fox News is a clear and present danger to American democracy, and it has been for years.
4:00 – Just a brilliant lampoon of Fox News here. A blackhole of journalism and intellectual rigor, Fox deserves every ounce of scorn that might be heaped upon it.
4:30 – You can tell by the tone of Obama’s voice how much he disdains all of this. It’s a tour de force—through mere inflections of his voice he’s telling these people that he’d rather be at home watching basketball—while still making them laugh.
4:40 – Seth Meyer…z? Rare slipup from Obama. Also, Seth Meyers looks like the most happy-go-lucky member of the high school glee club.
4:50 – Ah, self-awareness. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what ya got till it’s gone?
6:06 – Obama is just so, so good at this. Imagine being the best politician in a room full of politicians AND the funniest guy in the room too. YOLO, I guess? Because that was a thing in 2011.
6:35 – A First Couple who clearly love each other. What a novel concept.
7:30 – Mark Halperin in the house. He’s the night’s first disgraced sexual predator, but he won’t be the last.
15:55-18:53 – Nice to listen to a President capable of speaking in complete sentences, right?
Seth Meyers speaks
After Obama’s thorough demolition of Trump’s decrepit edifice, Seth Meyers gets up to continue the mauling. Meyers, current host of NBC’s Late Night, was Saturday Night Live’s head writer and Weekend Update anchor at the time.
Perhaps his most notable participation in the show outside Weekend Update was this sketch, in which Will Ferrell crashes a work meeting in, well, you can watch for yourself. The episode aired on October 6, 2001, and was just the second show after 9/11. In yet another twist of history that’s especially ironic after recent events, the episode’s intro monologue was performed by then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. Known at the time as “America’s Mayor,” in recent weeks Giuliani has taken a heel turn into Trump buttmonkey, eviscerating the truth, along with his reputation.
Let’s go back to the tape.
00:37 – Obama smiles again. Please come back.
It’s the joke that changed history. On April 29, 2011 Donald Trump was an obnoxious clown who enjoyed the attention he got from toying with a run at the Presidency. On May 1, 2011, Donald Trump was an obnoxious clown bent on revenge against Obama, Meyers, and the political class that laughed him out of D.C. He would stop at nothing—no lie was too big enough, no amount of treason was off-limits. In fifty years someone will make another Back to the Future sequel where Doc Brown’s kids go back in time to stop Seth Meyers from telling that joke.
12:20 – The obligatory hair joke. This is well-trodden territory…almost as well-trodden as the roadkill on top of Donald Trump’s head.
13:20 – Too early for Old Rusty Birdcage 2020?
14:00 – You’re almost tempted to feel sorry for Trump at this point. And then you remember what an unmitigated disaster of a human being he is and the feeling passes.
14:05 – Trump is not as rich as most people seem to think.
14:20 – Seth’s Trump impression has vastly improved.
14:43 – Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
15:08 – Amen. For the record, Michelle Obama’s booty is no joke.
15:18 – Notice how gracefully Obama handles jokes at his own expense. That’s the difference. When you’re cool enough to laugh at yourself, people won’t take such pleasure in your pain. When you’re an egotistical blowhard with skin thinner than your capacity for basic human empathy…well, we’re living that nightmare right now. Trump skipped the most recent White House Correspondents Dinner (the one where everyone got their panties in a bunch over Michelle Wolf’s hilarious performance) and was his typical belligerently obtuse self at a rally in Michigan.
You know, there’s five minutes left of Seth Meyers’ routine, but the sight of a classy, amiable, Bin Laden-killing President is making me unbearably nostalgic for the more innocent days of April 2011.
So I’ll just go stare at this for an hour while listening to Enya on loop.
7:42 – Bit of a dad joke here about Paul Ryan, who in the past two years has turned out to be even more worthless than anyone could possibly have imagined.
9:17 – Obama uses a Mitt Romney joke to tee us up for the beatdown we’ve all been waiting for.
9:36 – It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Trump thought Obama was about to launch into a litany of compliments of his magnificent hair, gigantic hands, and definitely not exaggerated wealth. Trump is that delusional.
9:40 – Blood in the water. The crowd can smell it.
9:56 – Obama has the same tone of voice I use when talking to turds I’m about to flush down the toilet.
10:16 – I doubt Trump even knows who Biggie and Tupac are, but he definitely knows what Obama’s about now. The missiles are incoming.
10:28 – Prepare yourself for the destruction that’s about to happen. You may want to shield your eyes from the impending nuclear explosion of Donald Trump’s immolated ego.
10:33 – “All kidding aside, obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience…” Devastating. Obama pauses just a second to let the brilliance of the irony sink in. The crowd laughs as Trump impotently scratches his ear while Obama lays waste to his entire existence. And you know what? It’s true. We all know what Trump is—he’s the archetypical con man who compensates for lack of substance with braggadocio and is only able to succeed by fleecing the poor and unsuspecting.
11:13 – “And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night.” This line is deliciously caked in multiple layers of meaning. For one, it exposes the relentless tackiness of Trump’s entire modus operandi. Obama invites us to make the comparison, and it’s no contest. To top it off, Obama had just ordered the raid on Osama Bin Laden, while Trump was too busy pandering to racists and scamming the students of Trump University.
11:20 – The crowd’s applause is, unsurprisingly, raucous.
11:27 – Trump tries to fake a smile and a wave. Unsurprisingly, he fails.
11:45 – Thankfully the White House building itself is one American institution that Trump has left undamaged. Well, everything but the toilets.
11:53 – You can almost see Trump saying to himself how classy it looks.
12:00 – We’re left to recover from the fiery fallout of Obama’s Trump burns with a balmy montage of self-deprecating outtakes and Biden awkwardness set to Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel.
15:34 – A surprising cameo from our second disgraced sexual predator of the evening, Anthony Weiner, and his erstwhile wife Huma Abedin.
Hmm, not a great one from Don. It’s fun to imagine that review being read by Walter from The Big Lebowski. “This is not ‘Nam…there are rules.”
11:13-11:45 – Some technical difficulties in the feed, but considering the butt of these jokes was the Family Paul and Tim Pawlenty I don’t think we missed much.
12:02 – And the feed has miraculously recovered just in time for our second round of joke’s at Donald Trump’s expense.
12:05 – Meyers: “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for President as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” In retrospect, despite how brutally Obama dragged Trump, this is probably the moment that pushed Trump over the edge into running for President. Listen to that laughter. Look at his face.
1:20 – Good Birth Certificate bit from Seth Meyers, especially if he ad-libbed it based on Obama’s routine beforehand. And a Julian Assange reference, a real-life Bond villain who would later collude with Roger Stone to release some of the infamous “Hillary emails.”
2:06 – In the midst of rapid fire jokes about CSPAN’s low ratings, Meyers makes a Bin Laden joke. Literally the next day Obama and Robert Gates (seen laughing at 2:14) sat in the Situation Room of the White House while Navy Seals killed him. Imagine the balls on those guys, having to sit there and pretend not knowing what was about to happen.
2:18 – Look at Obama’s smile. Please, PLEASE come back.
3:45 – Seamless transition from some rapidfire Hilton Hotels jokes into a joke about abortion. Four years later Caitlyn Jenner would take on an even riskier transition.
4:35 – Self-awareness is always golden.
4:58 – The camera cuts to Bill O’Reilly (the night’s third sexual predator sighting) as Seth Meyers makes a joke about blondes with dynamite smiles. The foreshadowing here is strong.
5:12 – Joke about news website paywalls, which the New York Times had brought into vogue the month before.
5:55 – Breitbart joke. Breitbart and its executive chairman/Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon would play a pivotal role in flipping the 2016 election to Trump.
6:30 – Meyers jokes about Katie Couric leaving CBS News. Couric’s infamous interview of Sarah Palin in 2008 would inspire Tina Fey’s career-defining impression on SNL.
7:20 – Joke about Keith Olbermann getting suspended from his MSNBC show for donating money to Democratic political candidates. Say what you will about Keith Olbermann, but at least he didn’t sing Obama to sleep. Speaking of Sean Hannity, I laughed about this tweet for a solid week last fall.
7:40 – Piers Morgan. Enough said.
8:56 – “News outlets are adapting to an online world.” Welcome to the year 2011.
9:14 – Brian Williams takes a break from this classic tweet to appear in a joke.
9:38 – Royal Wedding. Yep, remember that one?
10:22 – 2012 Republican candidates. Remember when Binders Full of Woman was an unforgivable faux pas from a Republican candidate? Oh how young we were.
10:40 – Trump makes yet another appearance. If you look closely you can actually see him conceiving the plan to have Russian hookers piss in Obama’s bed.
10:44 – In case you’re interested in checking out Mitt Romney’s book No Apology, here it is. Let’s check out some of the reviews, shall we?