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Take My Husband. Please!
At the Correspondents' Dinner, a One-Woman Showstopper

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

You might think that Venus and Serena Williams, Elle Macpherson, Jane Fonda, Mary Tyler Moore and a cameo by the president would be enough celebrity wattage to light up any Washington gala. And it was, and it did. But it was a dependable supporting player who stole the show.

At the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner last night at the Hilton Washington, Laura Bush made the evening her own with an extended riff on her husband, his family and life at the ranch that drew a standing ovation.

"I'm proud of George," she told the ballroom. "He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year he tried to milk a horse." Pause. "It was a male horse." Pandemonium ensued in a room filled with tough acts to follow.

It was a night about intersections: Sunset Boulevard at Connecticut Avenue, where Hollywood and Washington sit down to break bread. The Correspondents' Association dinner is an annual prom for journalists who dress up in fancy gowns and sensible shoes and wait for the president to make a joke. And while waiting wade through an artificially constructed gala that is not even a good party. Mostly, it's about appearance and posturing and rubbing shoulders.

You know you're invisible from the moment you walk into the main entrance where there's a red carpet, and nobody snaps your picture.

Then Donovan McNabb walks down the red carpet and the cameras snap in a swarm of lights. A chorus yells behind the rope, "DONovaaan." But he in his French braids, he who is here missing mini-camp, keeps walking.

Before long, another red-carpet flurry of excitement. Who is that, the chorus behind the velvet rope sings. And just like that, she steps onto the carpet: a slim, very slim, Mary Tyler Moore. "Maaary," the chorus calls, holding up digital cameras. She turns and smiles.

Someone behind the velvet rope asks, very politely, Can I just step in to get a little closer?

A woman with a shock of red hair snaps: "NO! I've been here since 4 p.m. and I'm from New York ."

While Mary is smiling to the cameras another sweet thing scoots onto the red carpet. And she poses. You have no idea who she is but you snap her picture anyway.

Then comes Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell. "AAALaaan!" the chorus choruses. He doesn't stop. Doesn't turn. Until Andrea Mitchell, who is on his elbow, pauses. "Say happy anniversary to the Discovery Channel," a person from the Discovery Channel yells.

Andrea: "Happy anniversary, Discovery Channel!"

But then Mary Tyler Moore is still talking, saying why she has come to Washington: "My husband and I love journalism and journalists. I think we each turn each other on." Hmm? "Not talking about sexual, just the two occupations."

She turns. A woman in a pink dress with braids standing in the corner says, "Hello, may I talk to you?"

Mary smiles. Looks her up and down. Smiles and spins around. Diss! A pretty diss in this crowd of somebodies and nobodies.

But then there is Cedric the Entertainer, who says coming to Washington is fun. He says, yes, certain people can stop a crowd -- they are celebrities. But what is a celebrity?

"You get to become a celebrity in different ways," Cedric instructs. "First you got to have a fan base."

But just then, he is shouted down by the entrance of Constantine Maroulis, he of "American Idol" fame. And you realize how many gradations there are between Somebody and Nobody. Someone who was just voted off "Idol" walks onto the red carpet and the chorus behind the velvet rope burst into cheers: "Constantine!"

And here comes Bill Maher, saying he has come to Washington because "This is where the laws are made and bills are passed and people's lives are affected. We don't really affect people's lives that much. Yes, sure there are big egos who think they do. But we in Hollywood, we are not dealing with life-shattering events."

What is important, Maher says, "is guarding the chemical plants and looking into cargo planes. This" -- the red carpet -- "is not important. In fact, everybody here from the government should get back to work!"

While the red carpet show is going on in the main lobby, others of greater importance are making lesser entrances. Near the elevator to the parking garage, a guard stands. Seconds later, in sweeps Condoleezza Rice. "Hello," she says to a nobody in a pink dress standing in the corner. Surrounded by bodyguards, Rice is in a black gown and you think she looks stunning. And just before the doors of the elevator close, you notice her hair is different.

Upstairs, somehow you end up walking behind Mary Tyler Moore. And it's like following Moses into the Red Sea, albeit one turned black with tuxedos: The crowd parts. Tuxedos glint. Eyes move up and down, from Mary's hair to her shoes and that glittering gown in between. Someone shoves, whispers, "If I get to meet her, I think I would just die ." Then Mary stops and the woman shakes her hand. She doesn't die.

Exit Mary Tyler Moore. The president takes the podium in the ballroom and begins to tell a joke about cows.

"Not that old joke!" cries a heckler at the head table. Who turns out to be the first lady. She gestures for her husband to take his seat. "I've been attending these dinners for years, just quietly sitting there," Mrs. Bush says. "Now I've got a few things to say."

Dramatic pause. "George says he's always delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney! He's usually in bed by now."

The crowd cracks up.

"The other day I say to George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you've got to stay up later." The crowd roars.

"At 9 p.m. Mr. Excitement here is asleep and I'm watching 'Desperate Housewives.' Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a desperate housewife!"

And: "I'm introverted. He's extroverted . . . I can pronounce 'nuclear.' " (Much laughter.)

The first lady on her in-laws: "First prize is a three-day vacation with the Bush family. Second prize is 10 days."

Mary Tyler Moore may have knocked 'em out, but Laura Bush? She slayed.

At the Bloomberg News party afterward at a private mansion on Wyoming Avenue, there were ice cube garlands dripping from the ceiling and celebrities making a splash on the floor. Spotted amid the peach martinis and key lime cocktails were Al Franken, Al Sharpton, Goldie Hawn, Joe Pantoliano and Harvard President Larry Summers, who was asked to wait in line with the guest list's mere mortals when he attempted to enter.

A clear case of being eclipsed by Washington's lone star, even if she was nowhere to be seen.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company