- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

President Bush finally got to pay back his brother Jeb for the drawn-out recount in Florida. At his first performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night, he flashed a photograph of the Florida governor, au naturel as a toddler, to the assembled press — and therefore all the world — to see.

"I was asked if the vote recount left any hard feelings… . No, not really," Mr. Bush said as the photograph flashed on giant screens and an explosion of laughter filled the cavernous Washington Hilton ballroom.

The new president picked up the comedic baton, such as these things are, left by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, at previous dinners.Mr. Bushs ploy: using his allotted time to narrate the contents of a family photo album while keeping his tongue firmly planted in cheek for the maximum effect.

But while the Clinton years dinners were roiled in scandal, Mr. Bushs first foray was marked by far less glitz, and much more of an effort to keep to the evenings traditional goal of honoring the commander in chief.>The program, preceded by a dinner of salmon and filet mignon, began with a cleverly videotaped spoof of "Survivor D.C." set in the nations capital, "the most untamed and heartless place on earth."

Although the Democrats vs. Republicans tribal warfare schtick dragged on too long, it allowed such political luminaries as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and media egos such as ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson to spoof their images (with the latter hoisting a heavy "Bush to English" dictionary meant to help decipher the chief executives oft-tangled pronouncements).

Mr. Bush took to the podium to reveal a panoply of family photographs, including one of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, in a bathtub with his four children, circa 1953. "Its not arsenic in the water Id be really worried about," he said, deadpanning.

The president flashed his first-grade report card, noting its string of As.

"My advice is, dont peak too early," he said. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, sitting nearby, burst out laughing.

His presentation included serious moments, too. He paused to welcome Lt. Shane Osborn and Lt. John Comerford, the two pilots released by China after their surveillance plane made a forced landing on Hainan Island. He wrapped his presentation with an affecting ode to his family, switching gears deftly from laughter to warm smiles of recognition.

"The defining moments [of my life] have been family moments," he said, smiling his trademark nervous smile as he left the podium. Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" followed as the main event, and the wry impersonator didnt disappoint. The puffy-faced comic quickly unleashed his devastating Clinton persona with the current president trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.

"If nothing else, it was a fun presidency," Mr. Hammond said, wistfulness showing. "Every day hed be in a different jam, and not a fender bender. It was the stuff James Bond couldnt get out of."

Then came another bulls-eye of an impression, a comic segue about former Vice President Al Gore, described as a man who "talks like other people type." Jesse Jackson, Phil Donahue and New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani were skewered, though not President Bush, who escaped unscathed.

Mr. Hammond continuously shuffled papers through his presentation, ending with a well-observed ode to sexual politics that left some, including ABC News correspondent Barbara Walters, stone-faced. But most howled with laughter.

Revelers at The Washington Times reception included Mrs. Harris; columnists A.M. Rosenthal, Tony Blankley and Armstrong Williams; ambassadors David Ivry of Israel, Heng Chee Chan of Singapore and Yang Sung-Chul, of South Korea; Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association; John OSullivan, the new editor in chief of United Press International; Tommy G. Thompson, the new secretary of health and human services; and Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration.

Mrs. Harris said the spotlight on her since the Florida recount has dimmed in recent months. "People thanked me for following the law, even if they didnt like the outcome of the election," she said.

Mr. Williams, reflecting on Mr. Bushs first 100 days in office, said it would be near impossible to give him anything but high marks so far."He hasnt made anybody mad," Mr. Williams said, while adding that the president has "taken a beating" on environmental issues. Still, he added, he must be doing something right since many of the liberals he talks to are starting to fear Mr. Bush as a sturdy candidate in 2004.

"Im out there in the heartland. People like him. They think hes sincere and honest," Mr. LaPierre said. "I think people got tired of the [Clinton administration] side show."

The black-tie gala wasnt without its glamour. Donald Trump, escorting his latest model gal pal Melania Knauss, was spotted chatting up irreverent magician David Blaine at the pre-dinner cocktail reception. Other notables included Richard Hatch from "Survivor," looking svelte and decidedly untropical in his tuxedo, Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti, actresses Dana Delany and Bo Derek, and several members of "The West Wing" cast including Dule Hill, Rob Lowe and Allison Janney.

CNBCs "Hardball" host Chris Matthews evoked laughter from those crowding around him, including Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, while Lorraine Bracco of "Sopranos" fame, drew flashbulbs and well-wishers.

New York Post gossip guru Richard Johnson blamed the lack of tabloid-sized glitz on a squeaky clean president. "There isnt any central scandalous figure that weve had … at least that we know of," said Mr. Johnson, cooly studying the crowd for possible exceptions.

Cybercolumnist Matt Drudge, donning his trademark hat and shades, bemoaned the lack of scandal. "I fear for the republic. Hes boring me to tears," Mr. Drudge bellowed, apparently at a loss for any juicy tale to type.

The pre- and post-parties featured a healthy blend of talking heads, celebrities and genuine power players.

The evenings most exclusive after-party was hosted by media mogul Michael Bloomberg at the crimson-lighted Trade Ministry of the Russian Federation. The tented affair featured exotic metallic decor, flowing Veuve Clicquot, Russian caviar, an immense buffet of Asian cuisine and a squad of conically costumed performers gyrating throughout the evening on stilts.

The low-key evening recalled for many of the event in earlier times. Copley News Service correspondent Finlay Lewis said the dinner used to be a "bunch of hard-bitten reporters getting together to trade notes, schmooze and honor the president." During the Clinton years, the parties "got hijacked by the beautiful people from Hollywood," he said. "Now that Clinton is gone, we can return to what it was."

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