Obama Faces Question of Tone at White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Dinner comes 18 years after Oklahoma City bombing with the same keynoter.

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Conan O'Brien attends The Alliance for Children's Rights 21st Annual Dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 7, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Conan O'Brien attends The Alliance for Children's Rights 21st Annual Dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 7, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, President Obama faces a test of tone and substance when he addresses the highly publicized White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington Saturday.

The annual affair is usually glamorous and light hearted, attended by many celebrities from the entertainment world and the media, as well as a large number of political and government officials. It's been nicknamed the capital's "nerd prom."

Some might find the traditional frivolity and humorous presentations to be inappropriate so soon after the lethal bombings in Boston on April 15. But another school of thought holds that the country feels relieved that the suspects were caught and proud that the Boston community reacted so impressively, and all this makes people ready to move on.

[READ: Suspect Taken Into Custody After Hiding in Boat in Watertown, Mass.]

The entertainer at this year's formal WHCA dinner will be late night talk-show host Conan O'Brien. And it so happens that O'Brien was the entertainer under similar circumstances 18 years ago, when the dinner was held not long after the April 19, 1995, terrorist bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured nearly 700. It was the worst domestic terrorist incident in U.S. history. Adding another strange twist this year, O'Brien is from Boston.

I was the master of ceremonies at the WHCA dinner in 1995 as president of the WHCA's governing board, so I'm quite familiar with what Obama and current WHCA President Ed Henry must be going through in the runup to Saturday's event.

Eighteen years ago, a few urged that the dinner be cancelled. But I was convinced that the families of those who had died in Oklahoma City were ready to move on – not ready to forget what had happened but also not willing to be paralyzed by the tragedy – and I felt that most Americans agreed. Disruption of our normal lives is exactly what the terrorists want, then and now. So we proceeded.

[PHOTOS: History of U.S. Bombings, Failed Attempts]

The president, Bill Clinton, attended and made gracious remarks. I held a moment of silence for those killed and wounded, which seemed to be an appropriate way to acknowledge what had happened and show respect for the victims and the first responders. The dinner was widely judged a success. I suspect that there will be a similar outcome Saturday night.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book, Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.