Sunday, May 1, 2005

Who knew?

First lady Laura Bush took over the podium from her husband at Saturday night’s annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and knocked ‘em dead, keeping Washington’s most powerful politicos in stitches as she worked the ballroom like a seasoned stand-up comic.

“George always says he’s delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney. He’s usually in bed by now,” Mrs. Bush said. “I’m not kidding. I said to him the other day, ‘George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.’”

Her scripted “interruption” of the president’s traditional speech — mostly written by Landon Parvin, a longtime comic adviser to presidents back to Ronald Reagan — included such zingers as: “George and I are complete opposites — I’m quiet, he’s talkative; I’m introverted, he’s extroverted; I can pronounce nuclear. …”

Mrs. Bush’s impeccable delivery and timing — at one point, she said her “Aunt Bea”-like mother-in-law is “actually more like … hmm … Don Corleone” — was a surprise to most in the crowd, who have seen the former librarian only stand by her man and smile smartly.

“I am married to the president of the United States, and here’s our typical evening: Nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I’m watching ‘Desperate Housewives’ — with [Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife] Lynne Cheney,” Mrs. Bush said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they’re desperate, they ought to be with George.

“One night, after George went to bed, Lynne Cheney, [Secretary of State] Condi Rice, [Bush adviser] Karen Hughes and I went to Chippendales,” she said, referring to a strip club where women tuck cash into male dancers’ skimpy thongs. “I wouldn’t even mention it except [Supreme Court Justices] Ruth Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor saw us there. I won’t tell you what happened, but Lynne’s Secret Service code name is now ‘Dollar Bill.’”

The 2,500 people packed into the Washington Hilton ballroom exploded in laughter. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, sitting at a Washington Times table, appeared to enjoy the joke.

Although Washington’s movers and shakers laughed at Mrs. Bush’s performance, some in the press woke up with a Sunday morning hangover and began to criticize her monologue as immodest at best and downright bawdy at worst.

“Laura Bush cracks risque jokes at the White House Correspondents’ dinner,” sniffed Agence France-Presse.

CNN reporter Elaine Quijano, who attended the dinner, also apparently had her sensibilities scarred by some of the first lady’s quips.

“In some respects, I think for some folks it was a little shocking because she kind of crossed the line a little bit in some people’s minds,” she said.

“It was very risque,” the Nation’s David Korn said yesterday on Fox News. “I was wondering what the social conservatives and James Dobson had to say about all these jokes that were laced with sexual innuendo. Not a very family-values-type speech. I’m not sure I want to explain a lot of those jokes to my 4-year-old.”

Eyebrows were raised by the first lady’s bit about the president’s ranching skills, which Mrs. Bush said her husband lacked because the elite schools he attended, Andover and Yale, “don’t have a real strong ranching program.”

She then added: “He’s learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse. What’s worse, it was a male horse.”

The crowd howled. The joke, a female Associated Press reporter said, “had women giggling in the bathroom.”

Mrs. Bush had practiced the routine a few times — “not too many” one aide in the first lady’s office said yesterday. “She’s a funny lady and it was a good chance for everybody to see the lighter side of her,” the aide said.

The first lady joked about her in-laws and their Maine retreat. “Kennebunkport … is like Crawford, but without the nightlife,” Mrs. Bush said. “People ask me what it’s like to be up there with the whole Bush clan. Let me put it this way: First prize — three-day vacation with the Bush family. Second prize — 10 days.”

She joked about her husband’s proclivity to spend his vacation days at their Texas ranch clearing brush: “Or, as the girls call it, the Texas chainsaw massacre. George’s answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chainsaw — which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, sitting at a Washington Times table, doubled over in laughter.

She even zinged the vice president, who has had four heart attacks. “It’s always very interesting to see how the ranch air invigorates people when they come down from Washington. Recently, when Vice President Cheney was down, he got up early one morning, he put on his hiking boots, and he went on a brisk 20- to 30-foot walk.”

Mrs. Bush closed her act affectionately.

“In all seriousness, I do love the ranch, and I love the whole Bush family,” she said at the end of her bit. “I was an only child, and when I married into the extended Bush clan, I got brothers and sisters and wonderful in-laws, all of whom opened their arms to me. And included in the package, I got this guy here.”

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