By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Stephen Colbert came back.
Right here to the same room where he made official Washington so cranky back in '06. Here to the Hilton Washington ballroom, where his speech at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner got few laughs and was panned because it skewered -- not so artfully, many thought -- President Bush and the media.
But here he is up on the stage. And this time, finally, Colbert is getting laughs.
"The one and only -- and one is too many -- Stephen Colbert!" Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's delegate in Congress and one of Colbert's favorite foils, declares.
This is the matchup everyone has been waiting for in the buildup to the 20th Annual Roast for Spina Bifida. Their snippy, prickly -- utterly hilarious -- confrontations on "The Colbert Report" are Internet sensations.
It was Colbert who noted on his show that Norton helped write federal sexual harassment guidelines during the Carter administration.
"Then, why are you undressing me with your eyes, congresswoman?" Colbert asked her.
"You flatter yourself, sir," Norton shot back.
"It looked like you just raped me with your eyes just then," Colbert parried.
But tonight is different. Norton has the mike.
"Watch out, Colbert," she says. "Let's see how tough you are without your writers. . . . What do we call 'The Colbert Report' with funnier material? 'The Daily Show,' sir!"
The crowd loves it.
When Colbert got his turn, he turned to Norton and said, "Like in Congress, what you said was duly noted and had no effect whatsoever. . . . Do you ever dream of having a position with more power -- like student body president?"
For all the anticipation surrounding Norton and Colbert, the spina bifida group's Big Get is Rahm Emanuel, who agreed to the gig before he was named President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff and instantly became The Man to See in Washington.
"I wasn't sure if he'd go through with it, but he did," a relieved association official whispers out in the hall.
Minutes before dinner, Rahmbo -- so christened because of his volcanic style -- slips into the ballroom almost unnoticed in a dark, tailored suit. He checks his BlackBerry, then goes for the stacked hunks of brie, nicely melty now after sitting out for more than an hour.
Not far behind is Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Board chief and onetime Ruler of the Money Universe, now demoted from undisputed genius status because of the country's financial troubles and his admission that he was surprised when things went bad. Yesterday's Beltway Titan catches the eye of tomorrow's Beltway Titan. Emanuel makes the first move, leaning into the circle surrounding Greenspan, the Oracle, and clasping his hand.
Pleasantries are exchanged.
The Oracle taps the elbow of his wife, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, trying to get her attention so she can greet His Rahmbo-ness. No luck.
Mitchell keeps talking. And Emanuel keeps moving, winking goodbye to the smiling Greenspan. (Colbert later suggested to the audience that the missing portion of the middle finger on Emanuel's right hand wasn't lost in a meat-cutting accident, as has been reported -- and reported and reported. "Rahm Emanuel," he said, "has given the finger to so many people in this town that he wore the tip off." Then Colbert went on to do what everyone else in Washington is doing: angling for a job. "Can I be in the Cabinet?" he asked. "If Hillary says no, can I be secretary of state?")
Greenspan and Mitchell are regulars at this annual shindig, the brainchild of Bloomberg's Al Hunt and his wife, TV newswoman Judy Woodruff. The couple's son, Jeffrey Hunt, now 27 and a college student in North Carolina, has spina bifida, a condition in which the spine does not develop properly and that can cause learning disabilities and full or partial paralysis.
A few years back, Woodruff confirms, Mitchell and a friend bought a raffle ticket together and won the top prize at the event: a Porsche. Greenspan, one of the highest-paid speakers in the known universe, could afford any car he wanted his driver to drive, so the couple gave the Porsche to their friend.
Tonight, though, it is not Porsches but the wreckage of the economy that is on almost everyone's lips. In the drink line, a man says, "I read about that 90-day foreclosure moratorium you guys are doing."
But the goodies seem positively dot-com bubble-ish. On sale at the silent auction is a $2,000 Miley Cyrus autographed guitar and a $4,000 cashmere cape. With fox trim! This is less a powerful-politician crowd and more a big-shot-media crowd, drawn by the star power and friendship of Woodruff and Hunt. Friends of theirs stream into the ballroom. There's Bob Schieffer, senior statesman of old-school CBS News, chatting it up with a reporter from new-school Huffington Post.
Bob is a country music singer?
"Honky Tonk Confidential" is the name of his album, Schieffer says, as well as his band.
His favorite song?
"TV Anchorman," but of course.
And there's CNN's Wolf Blitzer, amazingly leaving the Situation Room for what seems like the first time in months.
And Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchorman is here, too. It is a heavily anchored room. The anchors are guests.
The working stiff journos in the room are more like threats. They have been warned: Stay away from Colbert.
"Stephen does not want the media to approach him," a public-relations woman says.
"Stephen asks that the media not approach him," the man at the check-in table warns.
A few steps away from all of the anchors, Bush administration spokeswoman Dana Perino, looking much more adorable and relaxed without a snarling pack of White House reporters in her face, is checking her notes, typed and inserted into a blue binder.
Perino, who says she has never roasted anyone, needed to do some homework. She doesn't watch Colbert's show.
"I can't," she says. "I'm in bed by 9 p.m."