It was, as honored guest President Clinton wryly noted, the largest gathering of TV and radio correspondents "ever assembled this far from a Los Angeles courtroom."
And among those laughing at the president's one-liners last night at the 51st annual Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner was none other than Brian "Kato" Kaelin, star-witness-in-waiting at the O.J. Simpson murder trial in California.
Moussed and bow-tied, Cable News Network's prize guest caused a mini-stampede when he passed through the metal detector and into the ballroom at the Washington Hilton, where the tables were set for 1,600.
The Simpson saga's very own Fabio had little to say other than "Hi" before settling in at his fourth-row table to dig into the chicken.
Then the guest entertainer, "Politically Incorrect" comic Bill Maher, dug into him.
Maher's nasty reference to Kaelin as a "pretty boy" drew boos from the audience, which had a similar response to the comic's observation that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry had pledged to take drugs off the streets of Washington "one gram at a time."
Clinton's own stint as a jokemeister went much more smoothly, even as he too waded into politically incorrect waters. He told the crowd that he and Vice President Gore had been brainstorming ideas for downsizing the federal government. To that end, Clinton said, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would be merged with the Bureau of Fisheries and the Interstate Trucking Commission.
"We're going to call it the Department of Guys," the president said.
Clinton also delighted his audience by admitting that he, too, tunes in to television coverage of the Simpson trial. Although his staff routinely tells the press that the commander in chief is too busy to watch, Clinton came clean last night.
"Course I'm watching!" he said. Clinton, sharing the head table with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, joked ruefully about the changes on Capitol Hill. Referring to "this Republican assault on affirmative action," he summarized, "I think the reason they don't like it anymore is because Democrats are a minority."
The president also suggested corporate sponsorship of federal holidays. "Like February 12th could be Lincoln-Mercury's birthday." Clinton did not refer to Kaelin's presence in the crowd.
CNN talk show host Larry King, appearing live, denied that putting Kaelin on the network's guest list had been his idea, but said he found it completely appropriate, and comparable to cameos at the same event in previous years by people such as Donald Trump's paramour Marla Maples.
"When you think about it, it's perfectly logical," King said before the dinner. "This is the greatest story not to have an effect on your life."
Nearly trampled as the sequined and tuxedoed correspondents rushed to get a peek at Kaelin when he entered, CBS anchor Dan Rather was unperturbed.
"I love this," he said of the event, ignoring the jostling around him. "The first I went to was in 1964. And now I've got a scoop for you: I was wearing these same shoes." Rather pointed down to his black patent tuxedo shoes, and said they have become a joke in his family, because he had been forced to go out and buy them just to get into the fancy dinner 31 years ago, when he had just arrived from Texas in "my Thom McAns."
"Lyndon B. Johnson saw these shoes," the newsman boasted.
CNN's Peter Arnett stood by himself against a wall, worrying that he wouldn't be able to recognize his invited guest, Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary Madeleine Albright was giving King a peck on the cheek and agreed amiably when he suggested that she, too, was there to see Kato Kaelin. King was also quick to point out that his own guest was Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence, a Simpson case commentator, and CNN's invitees also included "the ambassador of Britain," King said, though he did not know the diplomat's name. "All everybody is asking about is Kato," King complained.
Other luminaries attending included Lynda Carter and Arianna Huffington, who swept in wearing a gown of black velvet and magenta satin.
But even at the receptions following the dinner, the autograph hounds were flocking to Kaelin, who said he could identify with Forrest Gump. "Everyone seems to recognize me," he said while posing for pictures with fawning fans. "Hi, I'm Kato," he said over and over again by way of introduction.
During dinner, Kaelin said, people at his table had a few questions, but didn't interrogate him about his upcoming testimony at the Simpson trial. So what were the folks at Table 49 saying?
"Pass the salt," reported Kaelin. "And things like, When is your tux due back?' " CAPTION: Brian "Kato" Kaelin was SNN's special guest at last night's correspondent's dinner. CAPTION: President Clinton makes a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that schoolchildren eat lunch with "sporks," rather than spoons and forks, to save money.