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Laughs Are Muted at Radio-TV Fete

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C01

There was no presidential stand-up gig at the 61st Radio & Television Correspondents Association dinner last night at the Hilton Washington. That would be the traditional laugh-riot that became (for a change) memorable last year when President Bush narrated a slide show of himself looking under the Oval Office furniture and saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere . . . nope, no weapons over there . . . maybe under here?" The routine was criticized in some circles, given the mounting casualties in Iraq, though much of the assembled press corps laughed.

But with Bush in Rome for Pope John Paul II's funeral, the White House comedy chores fell last night to that iconic Washington funnyman, Dick Cheney.

New World Bank chief Paul D. Wolfowitz with CNN's Paula Zahn at the dinner, which drew far fewer celebrity guests than in years past. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

"I'm not into funny," the vice president said tersely -- which, of course, is funny in its self-evidence and thus brought down the house. Cheney, who has suffered four heart attacks, went on to describe "a strange sensation in my chest" he experienced the other day.

"Lynne told me, 'Dick, that's called laughing.' "

Cheney explained that he found out only a few days ago that he'd have to be at the dinner and have to be funny. So for the most part he didn't try to be. Which was just as well, as it was a tough night for humor given the twin grimnesses that hung over everything: Tuesday's news that longtime ABC News anchor Peter Jennings has lung cancer, and the pope's death on Saturday. The latter cost the event many first-tier newsies and much of its star power, including a good chunk of the head table (Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi).

Cheney spent the better part of his speech paying tribute to the pope, describing him as "a worldly and intellectual man who understood his time" and praising his "life of integrity, deep kindness and moral courage." He told of a meeting he and wife Lynne had with John Paul at the Vatican last year. Upon his departure, Cheney recalled, "The pope took both of my hands in his and said, 'God bless America' with all the conviction I've ever heard those words uttered."

Cheney was followed by comedian Lewis Black, of Comedy Central's "Daily Show," who grew up in Silver Spring and attended his high school prom in the same ballroom as the dinner.

"I feel the same way tonight," Black said. "I'm dressed in a tux. I'm uncomfortable, and once again, I know I'm not gonna get lucky." Big chuckle from Cheney on that one.

The dinner was short on celebrity beyond the garden variety of Washington types (George Stephanopoulos sandwiched between Karl Rove and Howard Dean at an ABC table). Hollywood was barely represented (beyond actor and Usual Suspect Ron Silver) and no one's heart seemed all that much in it anyway.

"There's a lot of reasons to be down," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was leaving a pre-dinner reception hosted by CBS. She added with a hint of pride that she's attended only six such formal dinners in 22 years in Washington. "The only reason I'm here tonight is because Bob Schieffer asked me," the California Democrat said. "If he's not here, I'll kill him." Schieffer was spotted later with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In lieu of celebrity guests, CNN invited a group of wounded U.S. soldiers who are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One guest, Army Ranger Eivend Forseth of Billings, Mont., was wounded in an ambush in Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 4. He has since undergone 14 operations in an attempt to repair nerve damage in his right arm.

"It's kind of overwhelming to be treated like a VIP for a night," said the 31-year old Forseth. "I just wish every soldier could experience this."

The 2,000 guests tucked into horseradish-crusted fillet of beef, Cajun salmon, garlic mashed potatoes and chocolate truffle cake. CNN's Candy Crowley was given the Joan Barone Award, and the David Bloom award -- named for the NBC News reporter who died in Iraq two years ago while embedded with U.S. troops -- went to ABC's "Nightline" for a program titled "Burn Unit."

Finally, we stumbled onto a little comedy, transpiring outside the Fox News pre-party, in the person of the conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas. What brings you here?

"My car," Thomas said.

Thanks, Cal!

But seriously: "Life goes on and the pope loved to laugh," he declared. "And if he were around, I'm sure the pope would love to be here."

The pope at the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner. There's a concept.

"It'd be a good crowd for him," Thomas insist. "A lotta sinners here. Lotta sinners."

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