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.

I attend these events and have fun, but I also feel uneasy at them, as journalists and officials laugh away political and policy differences that have tremendous life-and-death consequences outside the Washington Hilton ballroom. (Thankfully, there’s plenty of free booze.) This year it was odd to see big-name reporters and government officials drool over losers from American Idol, such as Sanjaya Malakar. (No one at Washington black-tie parties ever pushes through a crowd to have a picture taken with Michael Dukakis.) And when Dan Glickman, the former Democratic congressman who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America, reminded the crowd of the line from Inherit the Wind that “it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” I nearly choked on my dinner roll. There were few people in the grand room who adhere to this principle. In fact, a key mission of the night for many news organizations was to fete the brand-name administration officials they had managed to snag as guests–that is, to make sure the comfortable were comfortable.

With such a contradiction swirling about, Bush’s downbeat message (even if it saved him from an assignment he does not relish) was appropriate. And it did–via gentle implication–call into question the fundamental dynamics of the evening, though probably unintentionally. If only he had shown such sensitivity earlier in his presidency.

With my sermon thus concluded, here are a few tidbits from the evening:

* I overheard a not-for-attribution conversation between a big-name journalist and a senior administration official, in which the official noted that a problem with the nuclear negotiations between North Korea and Washington is that neocon diehard John Bolton still has his hands in the soup. The ex-UN ambassador is no longer part of the administration. But Bolton allies within the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House, this official explained, are trying to undermine the deal struck by the administration with North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program. These aides, this official said, do not fancy any nonproliferation negotiations with North Korea, believing such talks only legitimize the North Korean regime. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the official reported, is holding back the neocons. But, the official added, Bolton is in there fighting.

* World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, besieged due to the revelation he hooked up his girlfriend, a World Bank official, with a hefty raise, looked downcast at the dinner. But he managed to make it to Vanity Fair‘s post-dinner party at Christopher Hitchens’ apartment. Also there was Justice Antonin Scalia, who was challenged by Ana Marie Cox (a.k.a. the original Wonkette) on the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the ban on a late-term abortion procedure. States’ rights, the justice argued, overlooking the point that his court had okayed a national ban on this procedure.

* Senator Fred Thompson told Republican/conservative analyst David Bass that he has to “keep Corn in check.” This was a reference to a weekly video I do on the presidential race for Usually my partner is conservative writer Richard Miniter. But Bass has been filling in for Miniter these past few weeks, while Miniter has been in Iraq. So Thompson is paying attention to what’s being said about him on the Internet. Does this indicate he will run for president? Maybe he has too much time on his hands. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain were also at the dinner. But the leading Democratic presidential candidates were not. “Obama’s in a Super 8 in Iowa tonight,” one of his aides said, with a laugh. And when Romney had a chance to say hello to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he took a pass. The entry into the Republican presidential contest of another rich GOPer who could self-finance a campaign would certainly not be good for Romney.

* Actress Morgan Fairchild knows more about terrorism than 99.9 percent Americans–and most members of Congress. At a pre-dinner party, she engaged in a detailed conversation with Mark Hosenball, one of Newsweek‘s terrorism experts (who writes a column with Michael Isikoff, who co-authored Hubris with me). Fairchild and Hosenball discussed specific terrorist suspects by name. Not many people can keep up with Hosenball on the specifics of global terrorism. Fairchild did.

* Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left the dinner as soon as it finished.


DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.