White House Correspondents' Dinner: A Salute to the Centurions
I was at the White House Correspondents' Dinner tonight. And I loved 85% of it. This makes me somewhat of a hypocrite because I often criticize a lot of the people in that room, and I especially single out the chuminess of the press with the government.
Now, I justify my participation in this bacchanal event by saying two things. I am a spy for our audience -- it's important to know how these things work at a minimum. And it's important to have conversations with folks in DC because you never know what you might get out of it and what you might learn. I promise you that these are 100% true. But nonetheless, it doesn't justify me enjoying it so much.
But by the end of tonight I was feeling uneasy. I came home and tried to figure out why. My unease was first triggered by seeing Gen. David Petraeus there. He was in full uniform, but it wasn't the standard green one you see on TV, it was a reddish formal one. He reminded me of the Roman centurions. But it wasn't just that.
Then I saw Gen. Odierno in the same centurion outfit. There was a circle of admirers waiting to shake his hand. Then I remembered that Gen. Petraeus is now the head of the CIA. Does that mean he is no longer in the Armed Forces? Or is he a general and the head of a civilian branch of the government at the same time? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?
I guess it was one thing to see the politicians mingling with the press. I can get beyond that, if it was for just one night. But it churned my stomach to see the press so chummy with the guys who run the war machine. That's not some liberal, anti-military spiel. We need a military, obviously. But shouldn't the press be the most vigilant in their watchdog duties with these guys?
I guess Washington finds that concern weirdly out of place and I seemed to be the only one in the building worried about it (of course we don't know if that's the case, but people seemed to be thrilled to be talking to them).
Then the president spoke at the dinner itself. He was brilliant. It was genuinely funny. It was better than any stand up I have seen in awhile. At every joke and smile, he seemed like the most likeable guy in the world. Here's the problem -- I kept thinking about the drone strikes. I know, I am the world's biggest downer (and hypocrite to boot for laughing at the jokes and generally enjoying the night).
I kept thinking how could that nice guy be the one who just ordered "signature" drone strikes where we bomb people without even knowing who they are. If you don't know about this program, I know that it seems unbelievable, but it's absolutely true. In Yemen and Pakistan, we can order drone strikes without having any idea who the target is or who the people we are firing at are. The kinds of strikes where we know who we're bombing are now called "personality" strikes. Isn't it amazing that they have a word for that?
We are now allowed to execute U.S. citizens abroad without a trial. Attorney General Holder calls this "due process without judicial process." That chills me to my bones. Yet the marching band played on. And the centurions were warmly greeted.
When I got home, I put it all together and realized what was bothering me. It's one thing to have this event be the aberration and be the one time of the year where the watchdogs let down their guard and have civil, polite and even friendly conversations with the people they cover. Again, I would really enjoy that. But the over-chumminess of the White House Correspondents' Dinner is not the exception, it's now the rule.
We smile at the generals. We laugh at the president's jokes. And the war machine hums on. I know some Americans have gotten really numb to it, some even enjoy and celebrate it. But people do actually die in far away countries like Yemen. Does the fact that they are just from Yemen make them any less human? Did the civilians killed in those strikes have it coming? Did they think our jokes were really funny tonight?
Let me be the asshole downer one more time. Imagine if we magically transported one of those Yemeni families whose kids were killed in a "signature" strike to the event tonight. Imagine how shocked or saddened they would be at our vast, vast indifference. It was such a nice party and everyone had such a good time, without a second thought.
Now, you can pick any injustice in the world and make a big stink out of it on a night like this to ruin everyone's fun. And in some way that doesn't seem fair. But I guess I was looking for some indication of a recognition that this was a one time exception and that tomorrow morning we would go back to the hard questions about Yemen and dead civilians. But how many of you think that's going to happen?