- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

The Washington political correspondents had been waiting for Laura Bush to let down her hair, as Nancy Reagan did when she spoofed her designer-mad image with a rendition of “Second Hand Rose” at a Gridiron Dinner two decades ago.

It’s becoming a rite of passage for the modern first lady. And on Saturday evening, Mrs. Bush, the very model of the modern major presidential wife, outdid her predecessor. It was a night when Washington editors and reporters, assorted Hollywood stars and politicians got a taste of the first lady’s funny side — one she saves for close friends and family.

In a cleverly orchestrated move, Mrs. Bush pulled back her chair, stood up and interrupted her husband, who was saying how much he looked “forward to these dinners where I’m supposed to be funny.”

As he was about to repeat a joke about a cattle guard that bombed in Montana, Laura Bush took the stage at the White House Correspondents Dinner and complained, “Not that old joke again.”

“I’ve been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there. Well, I’ve got a few things I want to say.”

Say things she did, and she gave the guests something to talk about at parties that went deep into the night. Saying she stole the show is a bit of understatement. She was the show.

The annual dinner, dating from early in the last century and held at the Hilton Washington on Connecticut Avenue, was packed with journalists and the political celebrities they court for the occasion much the way high schoolers compete for dates to the senior prom.

There were fewer Hollywood types than in past years, but those in the audience — including actresses Mary Tyler Moore, Helen Mirren and Goldie Hawn — professed relief they didn’t have to follow Laura Bush.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to follow her,” Miss Mirren said. “Luckily, they had Cedric [the Entertainer] to do it. She was remarkable, especially her timing.”

“I thought Laura Bush was amazing tonight,” said Miss Mirren’s husband, director Taylor Hackford (“Ray,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”).

Follow Laura Bush? “No way,” said actor Ron Silver. “She was brilliant. That was a home run. It was so unexpected.”

Actress and memoirist Jane Fonda was spotted in the sea of familiar faces, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne; Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; “Sopranos” star Joe Pantoliano; former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; actors Dennis Hopper and Richard Gere; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb ; tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams; Kinky Friedman, the songwriter, novelist and madcap candidate for governor of Texas; and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Many news organizations, including The Washington Times, hosted private receptions before and after the dinner. This year’s big draw was Mr. Rumsfeld.

Asked how he got the nickname “Rummy,” he said, “Are you kidding? My father was Rummy. My sister was Rummy. We were all Rummy.”

Rummy went deep in conversation later at dinner with columnist Suzanne Fields about, of all things, “Paradise Lost.” Asked Corinna Lothar Metcalf, their table mate who interrupted her conversation with Justice Antonin Scalia about souls in limbo to ask from across the table: “Are you going to get to ‘Paradise Regained’ next?” Dr. Robert Norris had to skip the newspaper’s after-dinner reception; he preaches three times every Sunday morning at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. The Times’ table was one of the liveliest tables in the room.

Singapore’s Ambassador Heng Chee Chan chatted with L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia who is the new mayor of Richmond. When His Honor remarked on the large number of Chinese immigrants in Richmond, she told him: “The story is that Chinese immigrants were attracted to Richmond by the name, which they heard as “rich man.” She invited him to visit Singapore to talk about opportunities to make both Singaporeans and Richmonders rich, or at least prosperous. He accepted on the spot.

The hottest invitation after dinner was to the party hosted by Bloomberg News. A line snaked around the block as fabulous types waited in the light rain to get into a tent erected on the grounds of a mansion, undergoing renovation, on Wyoming Avenue. Once inside, all was a zoo. Spilled drinks. Noisy. So crowded that you were nose-to-nose with “Sideways” actress Virginia Madsen, comedian Al Franken, Internet news maven Matt Drudge, supermodel Elle MacPherson (clad in skintight jeans and accompanied by beau Arpad Busson from London) and ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, who summed up the evening.

“In the second term, Laura Bush has decided ‘to hell with it. It’s my turn.’”

Staff writer Christian Toto contributed to this report.

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