President Bush finally got something right.
On Saturday night, he was–as usual–at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. This is official Washington’s version of a prom. Be-tuxed and be-gowned journalists and government officials wine, dine, and schmooze–and stargaze at real and faux Hollywood celebs who are imported for the evening. One ritual of the night is for the president to deliver a self-deprecating comedy routine before the glammed-out crowd of 3000. At a similar event, three years ago, Bush joked about the missing WMDs in Iraq. Two years ago at the correspondents’ bash, Laura Bush ribbed her husband, cracking jokes that (by presidential standards) were off-color. Last year, Bush appeared with a Bush impersonator and performed a masterful bit before Stephen Colbert took the stage and hilariously but harshly spoofed the administration and the Washington press corps.
This year the pre-event buzz was about Rich Little, the has-been (but still appearing 30 weeks a year in Vegas) comic impersonator. He had been selected as the evening’s funny-man–and widely perceived as a white-flag choice by the correspondents’ association. (Knowing a little about the internal process that led to the Little pick, I do not share that perception. Several edgier comics were approached first and said no.) In the run-up to the dinner, there was not much talk about what Bush would do.
When the president took his turn at the podium, he surprised. Referring to the tragic shooting spree at Virginia Tech, he said, “I’ve decided not to be funny.” He spoke for a few brief moments about the massacre and sat down. That certainly did not tee up the crowd for Little, who immediately followed Bush and essentially bombed with a routine based on his 70s-style impersonations of presidents and Johnny Carson. (Far funnier was a short film showing a Top Ten list of “George W. Bush moments” that David Letterman created for the dinner.)
By invoking the Virginia Tech massacre to opt out of the usual yuks, Bush was able to dodge a task that he supposedly does not enjoy. But he did send a message: reality sometimes trumps frivolity. Of course, he should have followed such advice in past years when he kidded about the absent WMDs he had used as the primary justification for his invasion of Iraq and when he and Laura laughed it up without saying a word about the US soldiers stationed (and dying) in Iraq. Well, better late than never.