Like most people with weekend plans and a little bit of sense, I didn’t bother watching last Saturday’s White House Correspondents Dinner. The annual DC press event (mockingly referred to as Nerd Prom) has long struck me as squeamishly phony and awkward. The imagery of supposedly distinguished journalists belly-laughing at sophomoric political jokes, and stumbling over each other to take selfies with celebrity guests, just isn’t appealing to me. Instead, I sat in a crowded movie theater with my family, and enjoyed the hell out of an opening-weekend screening of Avengers: Infinity War.
When I got back that night, however, I noticed that social media outlets were abuzz over some derogatory jokes made at the dinner by Michelle Wolf. This of course prompted a natural question: Who’s Michelle Wolf?
As it turns out, she’s a comedian. And judging by the video clips I watched from the event, she’s not a particularity good one. Her most tasteless “joke” of the night had to do with abortion, but it was her notably mean-spirited words for White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (who was in attendance) that have generated the most heat.
If you haven’t heard by now, Wolf compared Sanders to Aunt Lydia, a loathsome character from the television series, A Handmaid’s Tail. Wolf also called Sanders a liar and took additional shots at her physical appearance:
“Every time Sarah steps up to the podium, I get excited because I’m not really sure what we’re going to get: you know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies, or divided into softball teams. ‘It’s shirts and skins, and this time, don’t be such a little b—-, Jim Acosta.’ I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
It’s safe bet that such quips would have never been tossed at a female Press Secretary working in a Democratic administration.
The hits on Sanders were met with a negative audience reaction, and afterwards, several journalists and political figures (from both sides of the political aisle) denounced Wolf’s rhetoric as having gone too far and gotten too personal:
Apology is owed to @PressSec and others grossly insulted ny Michelle Wolf at White House Correspondents Assoc dinner which started with uplifting heartfelt speech by @margarettalev – comedian was worst since Imus insulted Clinton’s
— Andrea Mitchell (@mitchellreports) April 29, 2018
If the @WHCA doesn’t apologize for last night’s personal attacks on the president’s @PressSec Sarah Sanders, they’re handing her moral high ground that she’s too smart to fritter away. Also, offering a public apology would be the right thing to do.
— David Martosko (@dmartosko) April 29, 2018
This is a really bad look. For journalism. Do better, WHCA.
— S.E. Cupp (@secupp) April 29, 2018
Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s most fervent defenders were especially upset:
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) April 29, 2018
My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner. Enough of elites mocking all of us
— Matt Schlapp (@mschlapp) April 29, 2018
The WHCD was supposed to celebrate the 1st Amendment. Instead they celebrated bullying, vulgarity, and hate. They got all dressed up so they would look nicer when they had a hired gun savagely attack their guests. Do they really wonder why America has no respect for them? Sad!
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) April 29, 2018
What a disgrace!
A totally disrespectful “comedy” act. Degrading the office of POTUS then criticizing Press Sec Sanders physical appearance, more.
— Eric Bolling (@ericbolling) April 29, 2018
Many people did rush to the defense of Wolf. Some argued that the White House Correspondents Dinner has long taken on a roast format, in which the president, his administration, and members of the media are all skewered for the purpose of entertainment.
There’s certainly some truth to that, but as NBC News’s Kelly O’Donnell pointed out on Twitter, the “spirit of the event had always been jokes that singe but don’t burn.”
It would be awfully tough for someone to try and make the case that Wolf’s jokes about Sanders’ looks weren’t designed to “burn.” They clearly were. Even the most hard-hitting of comedic roasts are accompanied with an element of endearment, and that clearly wasn’t what Wolf was presenting.
Another argument from Wolf’s defenders is that it was President Trump himself who had set a precedent for such personal attacks in politics by the way he conducted himself throughout the 2016 the campaign, and also now as president. Thus, in their mind, what Wolf said was perfectly justified.
While these folks are not wrong about Trump, they are indeed wrong in the notion that what he has said excuses similarly nasty rhetoric used to degrade him or members of his administration. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And many of those contending otherwise are only adding to the glaring hypocrisy and deficiency of character that exists on both sides of the political aisle.
If you were supportive or dismissive of instances like Trump mocking a reporter’s disability, mocking Carly Fiorina’s and Heidi Cruz’s looks, and attributing Megyn Kelly’s debate questioning to her menstrual cycle, but you were appalled by what Wolf said, you’re a hypocrite. So people like Laura Ingraham, Matt Schlapp, Mike Huckabee (yes, I know he’s her father), and Eric Bolling should really spare us their sanctimony.
Conversely, if you’ve been appalled by Trump’s personal attacks on people, but are supportive or dismissive of what Wolf said, you too are a hypocrite. So people like Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell should also save it.
Whataboutism is not a principled nor credible argument for anything, and it’s at least encouraging that some people, even in this increasingly tribal political landscape we find ourselves in, still seem to recognize that:
If we’re being honest, POTUS regularly engages in the same kind of personal attacks that Michelle Wolf did last night. But that doesn’t make either of them right
— Peter J. Hasson (@peterjhasson) April 29, 2018
“But the President says nasty things to people too and you’re okay with that,” is not an excuse to say nasty things to people. But it has become one. I’m old enough to remember when two wrongs didn’t make a right.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) April 29, 2018
The whole point of disapproving of stuff Trump does is lost if you use it as an excuse for your own behavior. https://t.co/GMu5jDbONA
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) April 29, 2018
Watching a wife and mother be humiliated on national television for her looks is deplorable. I have experienced insults about my appearance from the president. All women have a duty to unite when these attacks happen and the WHCA owes Sarah an apology.
— Mika Brzezinski (@morningmika) April 29, 2018
If even Mika Brzezinski can get it right on an issue of partisan civility, there’s no excuse why anyone can’t.