Under the weird twilight-blue ceiling of the Washington Hilton ballroom, 2,500 journalists and their special dates from government and industry crushed together Saturday night for the 75th annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. There is nothing elegant about this black-tie mob scene. And yet, Washington's most powerful people -- starting with George Bush -- were willing to endure major crowd discomfort. Maybe for the jokes. "I'll tell you one thing about Barbara," the president said after dinner. "Ever since she drank that radioactive iodine, she's been doubling as a nightlight in the upstairs bedroom ... "Her new nickname? The Three Mile Island Fox," he continued, referring to the treatment of his wife's thyroid condition. Bush was scheduled to yuck it up at the microphone for 10 minutes or so, but he pulled a stunt of his own -- surprising everyone, his staff included. After seven minutes of joking, Bush yanked TV comedian Garry Shandling from behind a curtain and had him work the crowd pro bono. Bush introduced him as "an average American tourist" who'd been pulled from the White House tour line. Nobody in the jaded crowd of news types, quite frankly, believed him. O ye of little faith. Truth is, Shandling and girlfriend Linda Doucett had flown in from L.A. and were taking a VIP tour of the West Wing earlier in the day. And as they were lurking outside the Oval Office -- kind of gawking at it -- Bush turned up unexpectedly. "The president walked in," Shandling said yesterday on the phone, "along with Mrs. Bush and their dog. They came right over and said hello -- much to my amazement. And he asked me what I was doing in town, and I said I had been invited to the correspondents dinner." Bush suggested to Shandling that they do a routine together. "I thought he was just joking," said Shandling. "Because -- as I said on stage -- I've never really taken him seriously before." Later Saturday afternoon, Shandling returned to the White House and sat around with Bush, his aide Tim McBride and speech writer Edward McNally. "We went over his jokes," said Shandling, "then I mentioned a couple jokes that I was thinking of doing. He was especially warm and friendly. It was a very easy atmosphere." At the Hilton, Shandling recounted his visit, saying, "I was in line at the White House. It was the liberal line -- which is the line that has to pay," and he included a plea he'd made to the president: "I hope you won't ask me to do that State of the Union thing." Bush closed their act. "It's getting late," he said, "and fortunately there won't be time tonight for my slide shows of the trip to Honduras." Impressionist Jim Morris began his Bush bit in silence -- just moving his head, sort of stammering, trying to get some words out. The president, watching Morris do his inarticulate-thing, started laughing hard, and finally held his big white dinner napkin over his face. "The Bush impression was perfect," said one White House correspondent. "I mean, we watch him every day -- all day long." "Mean. Mean. Mean. Mean," said CBS' Mike Wallace after the routine. "It was pretty cruel, accurate and funny -- just what it should have been at an event like this." It was Tom Hayden's first correspondents dinner -- he's refused invitations to them for years. "People I know are killing to get into this dinner," Hayden said. "But I just don't know. It's really interesting how democratic societies have an obsession with royalty. Except here, the court jester gets to rule instead of the king." Journalists come to this dinner every year with significant others -- their sources. And in general, spouses stay home. Anna Perez, the first lady's press secretary, came as the date of George Curry of the Chicago Tribune, even though it was her 10th wedding anniversary. Christopher Matthews of the San Francisco Examiner left his wife -- and their baby daughter born just that day -- in the hospital. Bringing the best date -- the most powerful, topical, or eye-catching -- has become a competition. Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post received after-dinner praise not only for inviting Garry Shandling as his guest, but for getting Shandling the fateful VIP tour of the White House. There were no huge attractions this year -- no Donna Rice, Sly Stallone or Vanna White. Nobody seemed to mind much. In fact, it became rather a joke. "Seen any stars yet?" David Blundy of the London Sunday Telegraph kept asking in the most uninterested voice. A few rumors, though, did circulate that Kevin Costner and Mary Tyler Moore were coming -- invited by Life magazine -- but they never appeared. The New York Times did a good job -- snagging White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and First Family member Dorothy Bush LeBlond (who yelled out from her table, "Oh, Daddy, please don't go into that!" when the president threatened to mention a recent Times editorial). Somebody thought to ask Bruce Babbitt, and Tip O'Neill was taking up a lot of space at the same table as Kitty Kelley. Former Zen governor Jerry Brown came as the guest of The Wall Street Journal, and drew a crowd of devotees. Notably absent: Jim Wright. There was no Fawn and Ollie show, but some of the North trial players did make it. Prosecutor John W. Keker came, and a couple members of his team, Michael Bromwich and David Zornow. Someone said that one of them bet money that Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., North's attorney, wouldn't show -- even though a place was reserved for him. And he didn't. Following the dinner, after-parties thrown by various newspapers promised the chance to schmooze with someone reasonably interesting. And there was a great deal of drinking -- drinking without spouses present. And the crowd conditions were no less uncomfortable than at the dinner itself. "Do you even know whose party this is?" asked a speech writer reaching for his second beer. People kept talking about Bush's Honduras joke -- unofficially voted the night's best. Shandling, when asked for a critique of the president's performance, said: "I thought he did a great job. I have a feeling he's going to be very, very good at it from here on ... I think he's probably got it now."