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Where Laura Bush Outdid Cedric the Entertainer

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WASHINGTON ( -- The iconic moment of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner -- the instant when all its interlocking layers of vanity, media, power and celebrity were laid bare -- came midway through Newsweek’s packed pre-dinner party, when all revelers seeking to enter or exit were suddenly stopped short.
Photo: AP
Richard Gere was among the horde of glitzy celebrities who packed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“I just touched Richard Gere,” tittered one female partygoer over her spangled shoulder. Sure enough, just inside the doorway, sandwiched between Newsweek contributing editor Lally Weymouth and president Rick Smith, was Mr. Gere, exuding West Coast cool and sporting a mop of distinguished gray. Meanwhile, not six feet away Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan nodded cryptically at another attendee while his wife, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, looked on. Stuck just outside the doorway: Incoming World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, trailed by men sporting fixed stares and earpieces dangling transparent coils.

Fate of global capitalism
“If something happens right now, global capitalism will grind to a halt,” muttered one onlooker, who correctly sensed the tableau’s true center of gravity. At which point Hamptons and Gotham publisher Jason Binn -- who is launching a D.C.-based title to flesh out his growing stable of free society magazines -- materialized next to Mr. Gere and chatted with the star actor while casually thumbing his BlackBerry. (Mr. Binn said he was not checking e-mail but making note of something Mr. Gere said. He was later spotted making a phone call while back-to-back with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.)

Such scenes played out in a never-ending loop Saturday into Sunday over the eight-plus hours of pre-parties, the dinner itself at the Washington Hilton and the after-party hosted by Bloomberg News Service.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which drew at least 3,000 media, politicos, and random stray celebrities this year, breeds an unusual form of social anxiety for those lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of the Almanac of American Politics. One might, like one attendee, not hear an introduction, politely ask the gentleman to repeat what he did for a living and be told “I’m the governor of Tennessee.” (Governor Phil Bredesen, who some Beltway wise guys cite as a dark-horse presidential candidate in 2008.) One might, like another partygoer, meet a courtly fellow at the bar who says he’s with the Food and Drug

Photo: AP
The surprise star of the evening was Laura Bush, whose jokes at the podium outdid those of Cedric the Entertainer.
Administration, ask what he does there -- and have Dr. Lester Crawford tell you, “I run it.” Or one could have Time’s White House correspondent, John Dickerson, tell you, no, he’s not the guy who might go to jail. (That would be -- d'oh! -- his colleague Matthew Cooper.)

Wonkette editor
So it is safer to stick with the faces you recognize. There’s Ana Marie Cox, editor of the dirty Beltway blog Wonkette, showing off a digital snapshot that captured an unlikely trio: Air America host and liberal gadfly Al Franken, ultra-conservative Focus on the Family chairman Dr. James Dobson and Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert. (Late-night chatter had Mr. Franken definitively returning to Minnesota to run for senator. A reasonably diligent search of the after-party’s premises, conducted between 12:30 a.m. and 2:10 a.m. Sunday morning, failed to locate or otherwise elicit a comment from Mr. Franken.)

There’s New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. There’s Venus and Serena Williams. And can that be teenaged kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart? (It can, and it is.) There’s pundit Andrew Sullivan palling around with South Park co-creator Matt Stone. There’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles, dancing, in full tuxedo, to a live percussionist. That is indeed Jon Cryer, currently co-starring in the sitcom Two and a Half Men but better known to a generation of adolescents as the unfortunately coiffed "Duckie" in the 1980s film Pretty in Pink. There’s Elle MacPherson. And old-school shout-fest star John McLaughlin. And PBS’ Jim Lehrer. And Dennis Hopper. (Dennis Hopper?) And New York Sen. Charles Schumer. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who set off a storm of paparazzi flashbulbs that Mr. Gere may well have envied. And Matt Drudge, who changed into jeans for the after party. And, for those convinced that Hollywood’s bluer than Mr. Drudge’s trousers, there’s actor and Republican activist Ron Silver yukking it up with Mr. Wolfowitz.

Laura Bush, surprise star
The “surprise” star of the dinner itself, via a neatly choreographed podium hijacking, was First Lady Laura Bush, who cut off President George W. Bush midjoke and launched into a very gently “edgy” series of jokes about the president and his family. (We are curious how her comparison of matriarch Barbara Bush to Don Corleone will go over at the next family gathering.) Still her remarks had more bite and funny -- ‘cause-it’s-true content, like the one about how the president’s solution to any problem on the ranch is to chainsaw it, “which is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well” -- than anything ventured by headliner Cedric the Entertainer.

But the dinner is only a sideshow. Actually, the whole night is a sideshow, but after dinner, attendees queued up in the rain and contended with a merciless door policy for the Bloomberg after-party. There attendees could feast on hors d'oeuvres -- which, in a brilliant party-planning maneuver, become breakfast foods somewhere around 1:30 a.m. -- and try to maneuver through the crush of the crowd to cadge endless free drinks at the bar. Departing early: Time Inc. Chairman Ann Moore accompanied by Time’s top editor, Jim Kelly, who joked he had some last-minute tweaks to make at his magazine. Also leaving early: Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Greenspan. Evidently, one must wake up early when one runs the world.

Many others stayed very late. Many celebrities were gawked at; many drinks were drunk; and much self-regard was self-regarded. Yet what happened as the wee hours wore on is not indicative of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s social priorities, and, for that matter, neither is the vague fear that one might mistake a congressman for a correspondent.

Consider this simple fact: At the dinner, speeches by the president and the First Lady preceded those of Cedric the Entertainer.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is, one dearly hopes, the only event in the world in which the leader of the free world is the opening act for a second-tier comedian.

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