- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

President George W. Bush scored big with deft jabs at Middle Eastern villains and the Enron scandal at the Alfalfa Club dinner Saturday night.
"A year ago, I wouldn't have known how to pronounce 'Mullah Omar,'" President Bush told the high-powered crowd of political, business and media heavyweights attending the event. "Today I bet that sucker wishes I hadn't learned."
The audience jumped to its feet, but there was more.
On Saddam Hussein: "The good news is that he has agreed to let us count his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The bad news? He wants Arthur Andersen to do it."
"He just keeps getting better and better," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said of the president's short and humorous remarks. "Tonight, and in many instances, he may actually be better" than former President Ronald Reagan.
It was a near-ultimate accolade that right, left and center seemed to be the general consensus.
Security dotted the two grand staircases, lobby, front entrance and just about everywhere else at the Capital Hilton as tuxedoed guests alighted from their shiny limousines for the annual event, one of the capital's most elite invitation-only affairs.
It was the first time since September 11 that Mr. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney appeared in public together. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice joined the crowd of political, business and media luminaries that included Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer; White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card; most of the Cabinet and many members of Congress. Much of the Bush family was present as well: first lady Laura Bush; former President George Bush with former first lady Barbara Bush; and presidential brothers Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, and Marvin Bush, a McLean lawyer.
Whatever the current political atmosphere, the evening remains strictly a good-time gathering. Founded in 1913 by a group of top-ranking government officials and financial titans, the Alfalfa Club has as its sole purpose getting together once a year for dinner and a few comic speeches.
Few take the proceedings seriously. Even Rep. John Dingell, one of the most partisan Democrats in Congress, was inclined to give the opposition a soft curve or two.
The Enron collapse "poses a remarkable dilemma," the outgoing club president told Mr. Bush and the Republicans. "There isn't a shred of evidence you did anything for them. … That's the problem,"
The tradition of inviting the president dates to Harry S. Truman, and since then, only former President Jimmy Carter, who tended to shun Washington "insider" social functions, has passed up the opportunity to fraternize with club members.
The president's speech had its self-deprecating moments as well. Making fun of his recent choking episode in the White House, he held up a giant pretzel for all to see, then took a big bite.
The real story was that Al Quaeda had tried to "get" him with the pretzel but had failed, he said, going on to mention that after pondering the incident, he had decided to ask for some paternal advice.
"My dad said if it ever happened again, 'Do what I did throw up.'"
"He was funny, crisp and, at the end, very moving," said the white-haired and professorial David McCullough, author of "John Adams" and "Truman," in his familiar baritone. "There wasn't a lot of the first person singular, which I liked about it. It was exactly right for the occasion and short."
Most guests scampered into the night the minute the dinner was finished. Among them: Mayor Anthony A. Williams; Virginia Gov. Mark Warner; former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretaries of State Madeleine K. Albright and George Shultz; Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and wife Andrea Mitchell; EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson; Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti; Librarian of Congress ames Billington; and former Sen. ohn Glenn.
Riggs National Corp. Chairman Joe L. Allbritton hosted an after-party party on the 12th floor of the hotel, where ABC-TV's Barbara Walters and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson mingled with politicos from yesteryear and other perennial guests who wouldn't dream of missing the annual event. Former Sen. Harry Flood Byrd Jr. , for example, leaned leisurely against a wall as he surveyed the crowd.
Mr. Byrd, it turned out, boasted a longevity of attendance that few, if any, could match.
"I've been going to the Alfalfa since 1936," the old-school Southern Democrat noted in his cultivated Virginia drawl, "and I always come back."


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