The A-List Makes the Guest List

Guest celebrities set to attend the White House correspondents' dinner include Ben Affleck, Todd Collins, Karl Rove and Marcia Cross. No word on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Guest celebrities set to attend the White House correspondents' dinner include Ben Affleck, Todd Collins, Karl Rove and Marcia Cross. No word on SpongeBob SquarePants. (By Francois Durand -- Getty Images)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Peter Baker
Monday, March 31, 2008

The arrival of the cherry blossoms means one thing -- folks all around Washington are scrounging for tickets to next month's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, and news organizations are scrambling to get the hottest guests.

Host outfits have until today to turn in guest names to the association for them to be listed in the program, but word is already spreading about some of the boldface names lined up for the capital's version of Oscar night. Movie stars, professional athletes, celebrity chefs and, oh yes, even a White House official or two are all on tap.

As the president of the association and a stalwart in the briefing room through many administrations, Ann Compton and her ABC News compadres naturally snagged some of the best-known faces -- most notably Ben Affleck, who has been in town shooting his movie, "State of Play," and Tim Daly, star of "Wings" and most recently "Private Practice," the network's spinoff of "Grey's Anatomy."

But they won't be the only Hollywood types on hand at the April 26 gala. "Grey's" Eric Dane will be coming as a guest of GQ magazine. Sitting at the Bloomberg table, according to the latest buzz, will be Harvey Keitel, the movie star; Ed Westwick of "Gossip Girl"; Hayden Panettiere of "Heroes"; Joel McHale, host of "The Soup" on E! Entertainment Television; and Lauren Conrad, the reality-show star. Word has it that Marcia Cross, one of those "Desperate Housewives," will be joining People magazine, no doubt empathizing with Laura Bush, who described herself as a "desperate housewife" at the 2005 dinner.

Glamour magazine, hosting a table for the first time, plans to bring Chelsea Handler, who has her own show, "Chelsea Lately," on E! Cable; Samantha Bee of "The Daily Show"; and Padma Lakshmi, the former supermodel who hosts the "Top Chef" reality show. CNN, going more local, tapped quarterback Todd Collins, fresh from his playoff run with the Washington Redskins. Newsweek may have the oddest couple, with Bush adviser Karl Rove and Clinton adviser Mark Penn.

For Bush, this will be his final correspondents' dinner in office, probably not a great tragedy for a president who has never been all that fond of the occasion. There is lots of speculation about what he will do for his swan song. He brought down the house at the Gridiron Club with his cowboy minstrel act, but he has a tough act to follow in Bill Clinton, who at his final correspondents' dinner played a video showing him knocking about the White House without much to do while his wife was off running for Senate.

Bush has a ready-made comedic act in the can, left over from last year when he ditched his laugh lines at the last minute because of the Virginia Tech shooting massacre. Still, this year he has late-night host Craig Ferguson to compete with, rather than Reagan-era comic Rich Little, so the joke writers want to make sure he's got the freshest material possible.

As for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, neither she nor her Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, plans to come to the dinner, scheduled just four days after their showdown in the Pennsylvania presidential primary. Nor, for that matter, does Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. And some of the networks had trouble recruiting A-list stars because the screenwriters' strike pushed shooting till later in the spring, meaning many top talents aren't available.

But one surprise guest has RSVP'd yes -- Vice President Cheney. Not a big fan of these dinners, he may want to come this year just to make sure the president doesn't use him as the butt of too many jokes.

School Days

If the swank dinner at the Washington Hilton isn't really Bush's cup of tea, the Texas high school reunion at the White House over the weekend may have been closer. The president and first lady on Saturday night hosted more than 500 people who graduated from three high schools in their home town of Midland, Tex., for a 44th reunion.

Bush didn't graduate from any of the three high schools -- Carver, Lee or Midland -- because he went off to Phillips Academy Andover, just as his father did. But he knew a lot of those who did pass through those high schools from his days at nearby Sam Houston Elementary School and San Jacinto Junior High School. The future president and first lady actually overlapped in seventh grade at San Jacinto, although they did not know each other.

The Money Man

When he's not practicing lines or hosting friends, the president these days is squeezing in a few fundraisers. He hit a couple last week after an Iraq war speech, bringing his total to 15 for the year.

Although the White House would not identify his host for a New York fundraiser a few weeks back -- a host who turned out to be controversial hedge fund king Paul Singer-- it readily named the hosts of last week's events. Marty Grunder, a landscaping businessman, opened his home on a five-acre lot in Bellbrook, Ohio, while Claude Kronk, a former steel executive, welcomed the president to his manse up a quarter-mile driveway in Sewickley Heights, Pa.

Even before the two events, Bush had raised more than $760 million at events since taking office seven years ago, far surpassing any other president, according to a tally by Mark Knoller of CBS News. Bush has managed to bring in all that cash while attending fewer events than his immediate predecessor. Bill Clinton headlined 203 fundraisers in his final year alone; Bush has done 306 during his presidency.

Making Friends With the New Kid

There was a collective sigh of relief at the White House last week after the first visit of newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came off without a hitch. Rudd beat one of Bush's best overseas friends, John Howard, and during the campaign promised to withdraw troops from Iraq. Rudd spent Friday with the president, and aides said the two struck a chord with each other despite their differences.

The mood was anything but tense during a session with reporters. Bush even raised the question about tension over Iraq. "I'm sure the press corps is going to say, 'Well, aren't you mad at the prime minister for fulfilling his campaign pledge?' " Bush said. "And the answer is no. Just so you don't even need to ask the question now."

Reporters went ahead and asked anyway. But the two leaders seemed to share an easy rapport. Rudd called the president "George," and said the two got along well because his home state of Queensland resembles Texas.

"I therefore designate you as an honorary Queenslander," Rudd told Bush. He then tweaked the president by noting, "It may surprise you that it's bigger than Texas."

Bush, feigning offense, chided, "Can you recover nicely?"

"Yes," Rudd said. "The recovery point is this: Queenslanders and Texans have a lot in common, and they get on well."

Quote of the Week

"I thought it would be tough. I didn't think it would be this tough."

-- Condoleezza Rice, asked by the Washington Times if she ever had doubts about the consequences of invading Iraq

© 2008 The Washington Post Company