Frayed Nerves, Excruciating Punchlines, and Sanjaya: My Night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

You could sense an edginess among the administration figures in the room -- waiting for the next round of subpoenas can have that effect.
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It was Throwback Night at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this weekend, thanks to Rich Little's moldy-oldie comedy routine and Karl Rove's retro dismissal of global warming. (Turd Blossom's sputtering rudeness, on the other hand, was pure 2007.)

I had flown into Washington for the event not sure what to expect. Given Little's Love Boat-level pedigree and pre-dinner pronouncements that he had no intention of making waves (and coming on the heels of last year's one-for-the-ages appearance by Stephen Colbert), my expectations were decidedly discounted. Even so, Little's performance was more excruciating than I could have imagined (more on this in a moment).

The entire evening had the surrealistic feel of a Salvador Dali movie.

Indeed, the strangeness started the night before the dinner on my red-eye flight into DC. After take-off, the woman across the aisle from me leaned over and asked if I was flying in for the dinner. I told her that I was and asked if she was too. "Yes," she said. "I'm Sanjaya's mom!" I glanced back, and there was the fallen-but-radiant Idol, seated next to a bodyguard hired to protect him from the mobs of well-wishers that now follow him wherever he goes (It was a good hire: Sanjaya's table was a hot destination throughout the Correspondents' dinner). Mrs. Malakar was a very charming woman. Our conversation ranged from the black-beaded dress she had bought for the occasion to her less than rosy assessment of the Bush administration. My mind flashed on how Simon Cowell might have assessed Alberto Gonzales' off-key testimony, and whether the AG would have won over Arlen Specter if he'd done his hair in a pony-hawk.

Speaking of Gonzales, he gamely made the rounds at the dinner, looking like a man waiting for the results of a medical test he knows didn't go well. I couldn't tell who looked more ashen, Gonzales or Paul Wolfowitz, who I kept running into throughout the night.

Every time I saw the embattled World Bank president, he was checking his Blackberry. It must have been agonizing for him once he took his seat in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton. There was no Blackberry reception there -- which meant he actually had to pay attention to Rich Little's act. If there had been reception, I guarantee you that anyone not seated on the dais would have been texting away, desperately trying to block out the mind-deadening run of spider-web-covered impersonations and Branson-level jokes ("If you overdosed on Viagra, how would you get the coffin closed?").

You could sense an edginess among the administration figures in the room (waiting for the next round of subpoenas can have that effect). So the jovial MC Rove of just a few weeks ago was replaced by the Bellicose Boy Genius who took a gentle touch from the beguiling Sheryl Crow as the equivalent of a glove slapped across his face. Hurled invectives from 20 paces at dawn!!

News of the dustup between Rove, Sheryl, and Laurie David quickly traveled around the room. When I went over to their table to find out exactly what had happened, I was proud to see the two of them huddled together, scribbling their blog about the incident on the back of a menu, with Larry King looking on.

Back to the surrealism: it would be hard to match the absurdity of listening to President Bush explain that in deference to the shootings at Virginia Tech he would forgo telling any jokes: "In light of this tragedy at Virginia Tech, I decided not to be funny." Okay. I get that. But it raises the question: why did he have no problem cutting up last year or the year before or the year before that as the body count of dead American soldiers and Iraqi civilians continued to rise? Is there some sort of comedy rule I don't know about? So it's comedically acceptable to goof around, pretending to look for WMD under your desk while the troops put in harm's way in the name of those WMD are killed and mutilated but not in good taste to deliver a monologue in the aftermath of a tragic school shooting? Who knew?

Or maybe the president just didn't want to upstage Little, who turned out to be irritatingly bad rather than soothingly bland as intended.

Look, I have nothing against Rich Little. He's a perfectly fine entertainer, if your idea of entertainment is impersonations of Dwight Eisenhower and Telly Savalas (is there anyone still alive who would know the difference between a good Eisenhower impersonation and a bad one?) or jokes about hemorrhoids.

And, full disclosure, I didn't watch his entire performance. It was so painful, at a certain point I ducked out. But from what I saw, Little delivered exactly what the White House Correspondents' Association wanted (give or take a groaner or ten). People remember Colbert's performance last year for his skewering of the president but, in fact, he also brilliantly and brutally skewered the media for their complicity in the outrages of the last six years.

"Here's how it works," he reminded the stunned crowd, "the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know: fiction!"

With the consequences of the media's failure to do their job over the last six years raining down on us every day, it's no wonder that instead of being comically called out for their role as enablers, the assembled reporters would rather hop in the way-back machine and listen to a lame Jimmy Carter impression that ended with a double-entendre punchline about "nuts."

It's so much easier laughing at Karl Rove rapping -- and acting as his backup dancers -- than examining one's complicity in serving as a mouthpiece for Rove's thuggery ("Make, announce, type.").

What should the press do instead? For a start they should watch Bill Moyers' devastating critique of the role the press played in selling the Iraq war. His 90-minute special, "Buying the War," airs this Wednesday on PBS.

Maybe this blast from the past, as opposed to Little's, will prove enlightening, and next time (and there will sadly be a next time), the press won't be so easily cowed by attacks on its patriotism and by the cynical exploitation of fear and "national security."

One final take-away from the night: According to Rich Little, after the show President Bush told him that he thought the comedian's performance was "absolutely perfect." So the president's record of being wrong about just about every single thing during his presidency remains intact.

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Me with Jane Fonda

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Me with Henry Waxman and Michael Waxman

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Me with Jim Kinsey and Harry Shearer

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Me with Fred Thompson and Jim Kinsey

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