I'm not sure about Laura Bush. Imagine if Hillary had pushed her husband aside to deliver the presidential address at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. Then we'd have had two impeachments for one.
As it is, her elegance, grace, and lovely elocution aside, Laura's Saturday surprise was appalling. How many scores did she settle -- with her own side? She mocked Dick Cheney's tricky health. She depicted Mrs. Cheney as a male strip club tipper. She described the three architects of the Iraq war as butchers and brutes. This is what passes for humor while we still have soldiers dying in Iraq? Her clincher of a laugh line -- "George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later" -- reduced her husband's singular goal to nothingness.
Either that, or Laura confirmed she was on MoveOn's payroll. As it is, her description of her husband as a bore of a man who's asleep by nine each night should keep the Tina Brown/Maureen Dowds in business well into their retirement. Soon enough we learned that Laura herself actually has never watched "Desperate Housewives," but heard about the show from her two daughters, who just love it. That's reassuring: to be reminded of the twins' and their ghastly performance at the 2004 GOP convention. Which in turn reminded one of Laura's speech to the delegates, in which she joked about a father turning his children's clothes pink in the wash while their mother is off serving in Iraq. It simply is amazing how complacently accepting the princely Bush first couple is of all the cheapness and rot in our culture. (And I won't begin to analyze the Bush milking the male horse joke and what it says about the Bushes' cynical use of the religious right.)
At least, in the case of the Correspondents' Dinner, the Bushes came to the right place. Without celebrity, it seems, there is no politics anymore. We got a hint of this empty reality during the president's press conference two nights before, when the most pressing matter on the agenda was whether primetime TV programming would be discomfited by the event. Some (who should know better) were wowed by president's "dazzling" performance that evening. Dazzling? He gave away the store to what's left of Social Security reform, refused to fight for his judicial nominees, and affected a breeziness that just about had him checking his watch the way Dad once did.
Worst of all, he let the pressies off the hook. It's a sign of how Bush's numbers have dropped with the economy that he no longer displayed contempt for his interlocutors. It could be that the January 26 conference, capped by Jeff Gannon's all-time softball, will mark the high point of Bush's second term. Thursday's questioners weren't particularly in an ornery mood themselves. Terry Moran was an exception, but then he would be, wouldn't he? The president hardly noticed. Edwin Chen, of the lowly L.A. Times, asked an insulting question, about whether Bush's "personally bear[s] any responsibility in having contributed" to the "poisonous partisan atmosphere here in Washington." Two nights later at the Correspondents' Dinner Chen sat at the head table, several partisans down from Bush. The president's people never bothered to poison Chen's food.
Chen was there by virtue of his being secretary of the White House Correspondents' Association. Less charismatic than Cedric the Entertainer, he never got a chance to speak. That honor fell to the association's outgoing president, Ron Hutcheson of Knight-Ridder, and incoming president Mark Smith, of AP Radio.
Hutcheson, on introducing Smith, praised his supposedly legendary voice and the nickname Smith earned as an aficionado of spicy food during his student day's at Cornell: Frank's Hot Sauce Boy. But that was then. Laura was hot, perhaps, on Saturday. Smith proved rather whiny and presumptuous.
Not that anyone in the polite audience listened to his remarks. Fortunately, C-Span's mikes captured some of them, as Smith recited the liberal journalist's creed. It began with shots at the people he covers. As the White House press briefing room is being remodeled, he noted, one set of plans calls for it was found in a folder marked "Guantanamo." Looking at Dick Cheney, he promised to provide full records of relevant meetings and their participants. Then he turned serious, noting how his family (whom he "love[s] to bits") has sacrificed for his "choice of profession" (later he'll call it a "calling"), which is anything but glamorous: "brutal hours, long absence, nightmare logistics, constant pressure..." The story gets sadder. "Few of us are actually getting rich" doing journalism. Tragic in fact: "Nor are we getting much love these days." All those "irate e-mails" he's received after his broadcasts. Not to mention the "steely-eyed" stare Bush gave him at a press conference when he asked the president about "torture." All because Smith believes in "skeptical, downright antagonistic questioning," which constitutes the "daily diet of democracy." Like all members of the herd, Smith still believes he's performing an "essential...public service."
But again, it doesn't appear anyone at the journalists' gala paid any mind to what Smith had to say. What a sad state of affairs when even trusted liberal bromides no longer have cachet.