Correspondents Dinner happens without a hitch

An annual unconsummated mating ritual between A-list journos and the people they cover as well as the stars they covet, the White House Correspondents Dinner went off without a hitch or much of anything else Saturday night — precisely as planners had hoped. Comedian Rich Little stayed comfortably within the envelope of respectability, in stark contrast to last year’s headliner, Stephen Colbert, who broke the usual bounds and whose presence was still felt even in his absence.

A “Top Ten” list that David Letterman sent provided the closest thing to an edgy moment, but despite even a political point or two that some showbiz types tried to make, provoking minor fireworks, the evening was the usual display of the seductive power of celebrity in almost any form.

The mother of all D.C. parties, except for maybe a presidential inauguration ball, the WHCD always traffics in stars as news orgs compete for the biggest names to come as guests. This year the list included, among others, Sheryl Crow, Morgan Fairchild, Tim Daly, Valerie Bertinelli, Kerry Washington, Jane Fonda, Tim Gunn, Larry and Laurie David, Wendy Malick and — nabbed by People magazine at the last second — former “American Idol” contestant Sanjaya Malakar (who appeared with subdued hair). Dennis Hopper was listed as a guest, but whether he made it wasn’t clear.

The mutual fascination between Hollywood and D.C. dominated the crowd of more than 2,000 at the Washington Hilton.

While Laurie David said it was her first WHCD and “could be my last — it’s too big, even by Hollywood standards,” she also enthused: “Within 15 minutes of arriving, I got to hug (New York Gov.) Eliot Spitzer!”

Spitzer, in turn, made a point of stopping by Sanjaya’s table to get the 17-year-old’s autograph.

The Washington Post spotted CBS Evening News exec Rick Kaplan “climbing on top of chairs to reach Jane Fonda,” and Fairchild “chatting up” MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews.

Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff and a player in the outing of former CIA officer Valerie Plame, found himself unwillingly recruited into the evening’s entertainment of last month’s Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner to do a spontaneous rap routine. Asked if he was going to do anything for the WHCD, Rove told Daily Variety, “Nothing. I’m doing nothing! And if I’m called on to do anything, I’m going to hide under the table!”

Rove might have wished he had hidden under the table when Laurie David, producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” approached to ask him to reconsider the threat of global warming. “We got into a little fight,” David said later. According to David, Rove exploded rudely; according to Rove, David was the aggressor. Witnesses said Crow tried to break things up, only to get into it with Rove herself.

David apparently had better luck with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. “I told her one of the biggest national security concerns is global warming,” David said. “And she agreed.”

Underscoring the sometimes odd love affair between showbiz and politics, Motion Picture Assn. of America chairman Dan Glickman presented a montage of film clips from movies about politics, including “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Seven Days in May,” “Primary Colors,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Born Yesterday.”

After handing out awards for political reporting, ABC World News anchor Charlie Gibson told the crowd that the White House Correspondents Assn. has been trying “for years” to get Letterman to come, “but don’t they know he’s too big and important?” Still, Gibson said, Letterman had compiled a list of “Top 10 George W. Bush Moments” — video clips of the president bumping his head on his helicopter; trying to leave a stage after speaking, but finding nothing but locked doors; spitting on the White House lawn; etc. Amid the clips Letterman appeared, saying he would love to be at the dinner, “but Saturday night for me is yoga.”

Through it all, Bush, the guest of honor, smiled.

The evening took a somber turn when White House spokesman Tony Snow appeared. He has been away from his job since the announcement three weeks ago that his cancer had returned. Following Snow came the editor of the Virginia Tech newspaper, who thanked the media for coverage and asked the audience for a “Let’s go, Hokies!” cheer, which was graciously supplied.

Bush then briefly took the podium, saying it was good to laugh and that “we’ve got to learn to laugh more in this town. A society that pokes fun at its political leaders is a confident and free society.” (Sustained applause.) “But in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I’ve decided not to be funny. But I do have the honor of introducing the man who will be.”

And with that, Little took over, deliberately distinguishing himself from Colbert. “I’m not a political satirist. I’m not here to make a political point. I’m just a nightclub entertainer who tells lots of dumb, silly jokes.”

He used impressions — of John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Carson, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and W. — to tell jokes, some old enough that guests occasionally muttered the punch lines before he did.

A few times Little drew hearty laughs; mostly the laughs were polite.

Buttonholed after the dinner ended, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich offered this assessment: “The president was right not to be funny. It was very emotional to see Tony Snow again. And I thought Rich Little rose to the occasion.”

Not everyone agreed about Little. “Tired” was one description from a congressional staffer, and Malick said, “Rich is a very accomplished comedian, but there was nothing new. I’ve been hearing it all for years. He’s very fun, but very safe.”

Marie Little, the comic’s wife, took issue with that. “Stephen Colbert was very disrespectful and very untasteful. Rich isn’t safe. He’s tasteful.”

At the glitzy after-party sponsored by Capitol File magazine and the Colombian ambassador (Vanity Fair and Bloomberg sponsored the other two respective big shindigs), Kerry Washington was ambivalent about the evening. She felt good about “celebrating a free press, which we need, but I was a little disappointed and shocked that no one talked about the (Iraq) war.” Careful to emphasize respect and concern for the Virginia Tech tragedy, Washington added, “It’s interesting that the president could be funny last year with many soldiers dying overseas, but couldn’t be this year.”

Malick agreed. “It’s obscene how much attention we’re putting on this particular incident,” she said. “This kind of thing happens all the time (elsewhere) but people don’t talk about what happened in Darfur or Iraq in the last week.”

And some were struck by simpler — or maybe more profound — observations. “I’m just impressed that the Hilton drained the pool for this thing,” said Harry Shearer. “It’s got to be special if the pool is drained.”

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