"Tonight, we have truly what is a 'man bites dog' story," host Bob Schieffer told the crowd at the National Press Club.
That, at least, was the plan: The "dogs" -- NBC News's David Gregory and five other White House correspondents -- had agreed to submit to questioning by the "man," White House press secretary Tony Snow, who usually is at the receiving end of such grillings.
But Snow wouldn't bite. "For those of you who are expecting theatrical savagery on my part, forget about it," Snow advised the crowd of 250 and a live C-SPAN audience Tuesday night. Instead, the hour turned into a mutual rehabilitation session. Snow argued that reporters are not the jackals that the public supposes them to be. The reporters reciprocated with warm tales about covering the Bush White House; one spoke about the perk of seeing Snow's bare knees.
"If there is a flash of tempers between me and Tony, it's not about him and me, it's nothing personal," said Gregory, whose televised clashes with Snow have become legend.
Snow grinned. "What you see quite often at the briefings are sharp exchanges, but David's right: It's not personal," the press secretary agreed. "I not only like but admire everybody else sitting up here on this podium. It is a real pleasure and a privilege to work with them, to get to know them. . . . It is a wondrous thing."
For those requiring something even more cloying, there was a large tray of cookies at the exit.
Only occasionally did a barb pierce the evening's pleasantries. "How often have you gone home and you said, 'Man, I'll tell you what, if I could do it over again, I really would have been nicer to that press secretary?' " Snow queried.
"When I have something to announce, I'll announce it," Gregory replied, using a standard line of President Bush's spokesmen.
The New York Times' Sheryl Stolberg smiled sweetly at Snow as she confided to the crowd, "I often tease Tony and tell him that he's the most useless press secretary ever."
"Thank you," Snow responded with an aw-shucks look.
Mostly, though, the journalists grappled with one another rather than with Snow. "This will surprise you, but I think there are some people who play to the cameras," the Associated Press's Terry Hunt said of the White House briefings.
"No!" said CBS Radio's Mark Knoller, in mock surprise.
Gregory, wearing a natty purple tie, would not stand for this. "I think what Terry Hunt said is wrong and actionable," he deadpanned. "People think people are playing to the cameras. I can't control what Tony does."
Snow changed the subject, but Knoller soon brought the talk back to his showboat colleagues' hectoring of White House briefers. "I'm not there to debate them," he said.
"I see it a little bit differently," Gregory said, to laughter. "I'm just trying to push him to what I think would be more candor than he's prepared to offer."
The talk of candor must have moved Snow to offer up some. "There will be times when I tap-dance around something because it would be best answered off the record," he admitted.
The confessions continued. "The best thing I like about being on radio is the anonymity," Knoller said. "It means that if you're thumbing through the adult magazines at Barnes & Noble, nobody's going to know who you are."
Awkward laughter followed. Snow quaffed some water and raised his eyebrows. "It's a joke!" Knoller insisted.
Next in the confessional was Stolberg, who spoke of a reader complaint. "Your story on thus-and-such today was lively and well written," she recalled the reader saying. "To see how you could add insight and depth to your coverage, check out Abramowitz in The Washington Post."
Stolberg was the final panelist to be questioned by Snow ("Thank you for saving the best for last," she told him), but she proved the liveliest. She retold an exchange between her daughters: "My younger daughter said, 'Mommy, have you met the president?' And the older one said, 'The president has met Mom.' "
She also had some controversial views on the dusty Texas town where Bush has his ranch. "You know what I think is fun about being a White House correspondent? Crawford!" she said. "We can go in shorts, and the press secretary comes in shorts," she added.
Others on the dais recoiled. Gregory arched his eyebrows at Newsweek's Richard Wolffe. "And it's only 400 degrees," the NBC man said.
"The best thing about Crawford," Knoller chimed in, "is you can go to work and you don't have to go through metal detectors."
"And it's only 400 degrees," Gregory repeated.
American Urban Radio's April Ryan quietly told Gregory to "settle down."
"You always have Cindy Sheehan there," Snow offered.
But enough dissension. It was getting late, and it was time to make nice some more.
"It's very easy to overlook how cool it is to work in the White House," Snow proposed.
"Hard to beat," Wolffe concurred.
"A rare privilege," said Stolberg.
"Best job I have ever had," said Ryan.
"An amazing honor," said Knoller.
Will somebody please release the hounds?