I went on a getaway this past weekend with some cherished high-school friends and, boy, did I need the mini vacation. I looked forward to this escape more than usual. My job has been especially stressful lately and my personal commitments piled high. Plus the undercurrent of the Comey-Cohen-Trump-Korea-Brokaw-Mueller news cycle during the past week seemed particularly toxic and overwhelming. I really needed a break.
The weekend provided a wonderful change of scenery and an electronic cleanse, which were the perfect ingredients for a refreshed attitude. My friends and I hung out, went to a concert, had fish-and-chips at a down-home restaurant, and gabbed into the night. I’d completely forgotten that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was being broadcast the same night. I typically would have watched the show, but blissfully, this time, didn’t.
When my friends and I met the next morning for breakfast, a large-screen television at the hotel interrupted our news-free zone. The anchors were talking about the correspondents' dinner and the inappropriate jokes made by the host, comedian Michelle Wolf. Oh God, I thought. Really? The nasty discourse seemed inescapable. We decided to turn away and eat our omelets and sausages in peace, avoiding the partisan bickering and focusing on our respective plans for the day, which included a Red Sox game and a walk on the beach.
A little later that morning, one of my friends and I went back to the little cafeteria area for one last coffee before heading out. This time we were alone and it was hard to avoid the blaring voices of the talking heads on whatever news channel was on. The room was empty except for one hotel worker who was cleaning up the tables. This youngish man asked politely if we would mind if he continued cleaning while we talked.
As he swept the floors around us, the news anchors dissected the annual press dinner. At this point my friend and I, unable to block out the television chatter, started talking about the mean, often vulgar, rhetoric that has come to invade our days like an annoying soundtrack.
The hotel worker, hearing us talk, turned to us and said, “Isn’t it awful how they talk about the president like that?”
“Our president says terrible things about people all of the time,” I responded matter-of-factly. Because, well, it’s the truth. “The way he tweets and talks – he’s the one who has set this tone.”
Oh, man, I thought. Now I did it. Had I made a mistake? This was supposed to be a get-away-from-it-all zone, and here I was right back in it. Not only did I get caught up in politics, I just risked angering the young man, who’d been quite respectful to us.
“You’re right. You’re right!” he nodded his head. "You’re absolutely right.”
“We need to be able to respect the office of the president,” I said. “But it’s awfully hard to respect someone who acts like Trump.”
It was a forthright exchange and after a few more benign comments we left it at that. It was pretty clear that he was a Trump supporter. It was pretty clear that I was not. But this did not stop us from talking with one another. We didn’t sulk in silence or roll our eyes at each other because we sensed we were on the wrong side of the political divide.
We kept it simple, which may have been key. It doesn’t take much more than a kindergartner’s understanding of right and wrong to speak the truth about the vitriol that surrounds us.
And we avoided the outrage – either the fake or misinformed kind. We just had an honest conversation. I was glad he spoke up and broke the barrier of silence that many of us hide behind. He and I had no trouble communicating. We just talked to each other, you know, like humans. It didn’t have to be World War III.
What I didn’t say was as important. This wasn’t the moment to point out that the correspondents' dinner is a night dedicated to our first amendment rights that allow a comedian to be as raunchy and edgy as she wants. It wasn’t the right moment to point out that a 19-minute comedy act doesn’t hold a candle to more than a year’s worth of mean-spirited personal attacks from the President of the United States. It wasn’t the right moment to say that Sarah Huckabee Sanders could have handled the jokes with more grace and fewer obvious grimaces, virtually inviting people to run to her defense like a poor wounded damsel (she can dish it out but not take it, comes to mind). Even the conservative National Review found hypocrisy in the outcry over Wolf’s monologue.
None of this needed to be said to the hotel worker. He was just trying to do his job. My friends and I were just trying to enjoy ourselves. And all of us were just trying to get along, which we did.
When I got home that night, I streamed Michelle Wolf’s act. Was it vulgar at times? Uh-huh. Was it mean-spirited? Yes, she’s a comedian; comedy is often rough-edged, especially during a roast like this one. While Wolf made the most fun of Trump (as expected for an administration in power), she also called out Hillary Clinton, CNN (for “breaking” the news) and lots of media celebrities, including Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow. None of this was discussed in the news reports I heard. Instead the press was obsessed with the jokes about Sanders. It was a lopsided view of the event and laser-focused on stirring up controversy.
But the biggest, most overlooked takeaway of the night may have been this: while Trump held a campaign-style rally in Michigan as part of a boycott of the correspondents' dinner, Wolf beat the president at his own game. She made people feel uncomfortable, put them off balance, and got people talking. Wolf won the night in the reality entertainment sweepstakes. What a sad statement. And the media took the bait. Even sadder.
Days later, Wolf is the one we are still talking about in part because she spoke her truth. She was aided by Trump supporters who protested too much, forgetting first amendment rights when it was convenient for them. People may not have liked what Wolf said or how she said it, but she had the courage to deliver it and the right to say it her way, as a comedian. As of this writing, Wolf stands by every word. As she should.
I think we all have to be courageous enough to speak our truth. But the delivery really matters and needs to be appropriate to the venue. Like the small exchange I had with the guy in the cafeteria, the truth is fairly obvious and can be shared without animus when you choose to get out behind your partisan fence. In the end, we can’t turn away from the truth. But in this toxic environment fueled by the president and some media outlets, we may have to relearn how to say it to each other.