2019 Dinner

April 27, 2019


Ron Chernow, one of the most eminent biographers of American presidents and statesmen, was the featured speaker at the WHCA’s annual dinner on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Taking a spot often occupied at the dinner by a comic, Chernow noted the change from the outset. There has been “some squawking from the comedians and I’m sorry about that. Frankly, I thought some of those folks would have a little more sense of humor about my selection — after all, they ARE comedians. But we need them more than ever during this surreal time interlude in American life. As Will Rogers once observed, People are now taking their comedians seriously, and their politicians as a joke.”

(Watch Chernow’s remarks here.)

(Read the full text of Chernow’s prepared remarks here.)

A prize-winning biographer of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses Grant, Chernow sought to put the strenuous relationship between press and president in historical perspective.

“My main theme here tonight is that relations between presidents and the press are inevitably tough and almost always adversarial. But they don’t need to be steeped in venom.”

He said, for example, that George Washington was frequently pilloried in the press by criticisms and untrue accusations, such as one that he was a secret agent for the British during the Revolutionary War. “Despite this extreme provocation,” Chernow said, “Washington always honored the First Amendment.”

Referring to John Adams efforts against the press and press criticism, he noted that Adams lost re-election.

“Campaigns against the press don’t get your face carved into … Mount Rushmore. For when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy. The tribunal of history does not deal leniently with presidents who punish the press.”

About Chernow

After widely acclaimed biographies of business tycoons J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller — the Morgan book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction — Chernow turned to the Founding Fathers and American presidents.

His biography of Alexander Hamilton in 2004 was the first recipient of the George Washington Book Prize for the year’s best book about the founding era. Chernow served as historical consultant as playwright and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda turned that book into a Broadway phenomenon. The two jointly received the History Makers Award of the New York Historical Society for their work.

His masterful biography of the nation’s first president, Washington: A Life, was published to broad acclaim in 2010, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. “The best, most comprehensive, and most balanced single-volume biography of Washington ever written,” said Gordon Wood in The New York Review of Books. Chernow was a recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal, conferred at the White House.

His latest book, Grant, on the 18th president, was published in 2017 and spent four months on the bestseller list. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of the year. The Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska said the book “cements Chernow’s reputation as America’s preeminent historic biographer.” A movie is planned, directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, with Chernow as the historical adviser.

The author has received eight honorary doctorates. And, he has been featured three times in the New York Times crossword puzzle and once on Jeopardy.