Only in Washington.
Last night I was at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner. It’s a formal-and-fun affair where thousands of media folks assemble at the Hilton for a fancy dinner and fab pre- and post-parties. I’m not going to denigrate such soirees. I enjoy them. While bookers and producers jiggled and jostled on the dance floor and media and political celebs dissected the news du jour (this time it was Richard Clarke’s dramatic appearance before the 9/11 commission), I was able to chat with former weapons hunter David Kay and learn about some troubling developments in the intelligence community (more on that down the road). And there was free sushi.
But an awful you’re-all-alone moment came during George W. Bush’s comments that followed the sit-down dinner. The current president is often the honored guest at this annual affair, and the audience toasts him in what is supposed to be a sign of communal and nonpartisan spirit. And the tradition is that the president has to be funny; he has to provide us with an amusing speech that pokes fun at himself and his political foes. After all, political journalists love to see politicians engage in self-deprecating humor. Bill Clinton was quite good at these performances. Bush seems to enjoy them less. Rather than do straight standup, he sometimes relies on a humorous slide show, and that was how he chose to entertain the media throng this time.
It’s standard fare humor. Bush says he is preparing for a tough election fight; then on the large video screens a picture flashes showing him wearing a boxing robe while sitting at his desk. Bush notes he spends “a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies.” Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. There were funny bits about Skull and Bones, his mother, and Dick Cheney. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.”
The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn’t the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. “Nope,” he said. “No weapons over there.” More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: “Maybe under here.” Laughter again.
Disapproval must have registered upon my face, for one of my tablemates said, “Come on, David, this is funny.” I wanted to reply, Over 500 Americans and literally countless Iraqis are dead because of a war that was supposedly fought to find weapons of mass destruction, and Bush is joking about it. Instead, I took a long drink of the lovely white wine that had come with our dinner. It’s not as if I was in the middle of a talk-show debate and had to respond. This was certainly one of those occasions in which you either get it or don’t. And I wasn’t getting it. Or maybe my neighbor wasn’t.