Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Worth flagging no less for future anthropologists than for future historians is the fact that out of the 2,600 people at Saturday’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner most of whom, of course, were news writers and editors hosting a heavy contingent of Washington and Hollywood hoo-has only Internet reporter Matt Drudge saw fit to report what may have been the evening’s defining image: a video clip purporting to be former Independent Council Kenneth W. Starr, puffing on a cigar, and flashing his underwear in a manner suggesting, one might say, sexual arousal. The crowd, as they say, roared.

Is a body wholly funny bone-deficient if this juxtaposition of imagery impeached president and vilified prosecutor fails to bring on an oxygen-depriving attack of the giggles? Considering the trampling the law has suffered at the hands, or, rather the feet of Mr. Clinton and his band (however merry they might be on gala occasions), forgive us if it hurts when we laugh. It’s true that more than a year has passed a Paleolithic age in Washington since the president was disgraced, impeached and acquitted. Few probably even remember that Mr. Clinton came late to last year’s press dinner to avoid presenting Lewinsky-scoopster Michael Isikoff with an intrepid-reporter award, no doubt hoping to avoid a hearty handclasp like the one he received at an earlier banquet from this newspaper’s award-winning Jerry Seper. But are scandal jokes still cute? Come to think of it, were they ever anything more than a little bit outrageous? “Over the past few months, I’ve lost ten pounds,” Mr. Clinton said. “Where did they go? Why did I not produce them to the independent counsel?” Yukkety yuk.

Longer ago than the days of impeachment, of course, is the White House travel office scandal, during which Billy Dale and six other civil servants were summarily canned, slammed and ruined to make way for a bevy of Clinton cronies. High time, then, according to the White House, to turn their misfortune into laugh-track fodder. Addressing the crowd, which included the cast of the television show “West Wing,” Mr. Clinton saw fit to compare his first year in office to the show’s first season: “The critics just hated my travel office episode,” he said. Guffaws all around.

The president went on to joke repeatedly about the plight of Elian Gonzalez an episode that is still unresolved and painful to many by talking about the ease with which he would crash the evening’s after-party parties with Janet Reno get it? and by pretending to notice suspiciously longer hair in a photograph of himself. Then came a projected image of Mount Rushmore, featuring Mr. Clinton, of course, with a caption that read: “Photo courtesy of Greg Craig.” Judging by the peals of laughter, it would seem that the Fourth Estate is tickled to continue collecting government handouts on little Elian’s condition.

In short, a good time was had by all. “A nostalgic and lighthearted look at his final months,” enthused the Associated Press. Mr. Clinton was “the real star of the evening,” said The Washington Post. The president’s stand-up routine was even the subject of discussion on ABC’s “This Week,” rendering Sam Donaldson, if not exactly speechless, practically ungrammatical. “Did you notice how the president, I mean, he was just like well, he was like a professional comic in the way he’d say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”

To “debate” the issue further, Mr. Donaldson introduced Regis Philbin “a guy who knows a lot about entertainment” who was perhaps more illuminating than expected. “I noticed that outside of maybe just a little minor thing by Jay [Leno] last night, that all of the bad things that we should stay away from when we’re talking about the President Clinton were not mentioned at all,” said Mr. Philbin. Out of the mouths of guys who know a lot about entertainment.

Mr. Clinton, of course, showed a different strain of reticence in choosing his subjects, sticking to the small and expendable Billy Dale, Elian Gonzalez and even Ken Starr. But don’t bust your britches yet. The laws Mr. Clinton is known to have flouted aptly personified by Mr. Clinton’s victory mockup of Mr. Starr are in the end the laws that are supposed to protect us all. And that might not all always seem so funny.

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