- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

An old show biz axiom says a comic should never follow one funnier than he.

Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show" fell prey to that old saw Saturday night in a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton. His pain was all the worse because the comedian who upstaged him has been his favorite punching bag for years.

President Clinton, the guest of honor, drew raucous laughs for his deftly delivered jokes at the 86th annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, his eighth and last appearance.

"You like me, you really like me," Mr. Clinton gushed during one of his two standing ovations.

The lame duck won huge points with a hilarious video depicting his final days in the Oval Office, time spent cutting shrubbery, washing his limousine and playing Battleship in the White House Situation Room.

With all of his vaunted Hollywood ties, the film could turn into a screen test for the soon-to-be private citizen.

The president also took jabs at Vice President Al Gore, Janet Reno and Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush.

Hinting at the possibility of a Bush-McCain ticket, Mr. Clinton made reference to the five years that Arizona Sen. John McCain spent in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp: "Hasn't the man suffered enough?"

The president even poked fun at his own knack for attracting special prosecutors.

"They've only got seven more months to investigate me," he said of the congressional Republicans. "So little time, so many unanswered questions.

"For instance, I lost 10 pounds. Where did they go? … How did some of them manage to end up on Tim Russert?"

"If you weren't president, you'd be a great comic," Mr. Leno said, summing up the pulse of the 2,500 journalists and their guests. "From one comic to another, you were really, really funny."

This year was the year of the videotape at the correspondents' dinner. Not to be outmatched by the president's jocular film, Mr. Leno opened his own bag of video clips.

One had a talking Al Gore doll inducing sleep among children. Another satirized negative political ads, pinning a dog and cat in a brutal smear campaign.

Before dining on grilled lamb chops and sliced tenderloin of beef, the audience watched a video placing White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart on the set of NBC's "The West Wing." Several show regulars threatened to "kick his [rear end]" if they were left off the guest list.

Mr. Leno also scored plenty of comic bull's-eyes with his searing set, which dipped low enough for the inevitable Viagra jokes and a quick jab at the guest of honor's infidelities.

"There is no one sadder that you're leaving than me," Mr. Leno told the president before cracking wise about his upcoming targets, the presidential nominees.

"Gore versus Bush, the thrilla in vanilla," he said. "This is gonna turn into some kind of a polo match."

The event, known for attracting the Hollywood elite, didn't disappoint. However, the dinner lacked the tabloid fervor guaranteed in past years by Paula Jones, Ellen DeGeneres and Larry Flynt.

Mild-mannered Kevin Spacey, not known for starting any political bonfires, led the parade of Tinsel Town tourists, his Oscar-winning aura still intact, at the George magazine preparty.

Young, scruffy Tobey Maguire, of "The Cider House Rules" fame, drew much less attention and some curious comments from onlookers.

"I love him. He's wonderful. So short," one woman said to her companion.

"Yeah, who is he?" the man replied.

The Vanity Fair after-party a superexclusive affair didn't happen this time around, prompting Mr. Clinton to joke that its conclusion was inevitable: "This year no one made the guest list."

But where Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter left off, business media mogul Michael R. Bloomberg picked up.

After hearing Vanity Fair might skip the soiree, Mr. Bloomberg called up Mr. Carter to propose a joint effort.

"He said, 'No, you go ahead and do it,'" Mr. Bloomberg said, noting that the party, which George magazine helped to infuse with celebrities at the last minute, was "a nice way to say thank you to the press corps."

A red carpet up the sidewalk on Connecticut Avenue marked the route to the nearby Russian Trade Legation, which was bathed in red floodlights and surrounded by more security guards than the Kremlin on May Day.

Nonetheless, more than a few of Washington's most notorious gate crashers managed to slip inside the cozy, candlelit rooms to mingle with Mr. Spacey, William Baldwin, Christie Brinkley, Rob Lowe, Bo Derek and other Hollywood and high-fashion glitterati (many of whom stayed put on plush sofas and chairs the Bloomberg folks trucked in to create intimate conversational corners).

Episodes of "The West Wing" competed for attention with Bloomberg News stock quotations on strategically placed TV sets, while guests, the vast majority of whom seemed to be business media types, savored a never-ending supply of caviar, baby lamb chops and Veuve Clicquot until 4 a.m.

In between handshakes and photo posing, some of the stars indicated Mr. Clinton may be ready for his close-up.

"I think the night proves the president could go on and do anything," Mr. Spacey said, "unless Joe Lockhart is auditioning for the same role."

But some of Mr. Clinton's harshest critics still weren't willing to give the president his due as a stand-up.

"Disgusting, the lowest of the low," Internet gossip Matt Drudge said at The Washington Times post dinner party. "I fear this town is sicker than I thought."

* Social editor Kevin Chaffee contributed to this report.

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