Mar 21

Memorable Moments of Dinners Past

If there’s a single instance in the recent history that encapsulates what the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become in staid, old Washington, it would have to be the “Ozzy moment.” The year was 2002 and the unified spirit that enveloped Washington in the wake of the 9/11 attacks still lingered as the elite masses gathered at the Washington Hilton hotel for the annual dinner. President Bush was on hand, riding a wave of political popularity. Cabinet members like Colin Powell were also present, as well as the upper echelons of official Washington.

Comedian Drew Carey was the featured entertainment (after the president, of course), and the requisite celebrities were on hand as well – Harrison Ford, Christie Brinkley, etc. But it was heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne (invited by Fox News host Greta Van Susteren) everyone was clamoring to see. His MTV reality show “The Osbournes” had become a cultural phenomenon and the muttering poster boy of rock ‘n roll excess was more famous than he had ever been in his head-banging heyday. Even the president couldn’t resist the pull of America’s sudden and most unlikely celebrity. “The thing about Ozzy is he’s made a lot of big hit recordings,” Bush said as he gave the singer a shout-out during his remarks. “’Party With Animals,’ ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ ‘Face in Hell,’ ‘Black Skies’ and ‘Bloodbath in Paradise’ … Ozzy, mom loves your stuff.” Osbourne responded by standing on his chair, arms raised and shouting as the audience howled and applauded.

The sight of this conservative president and the Prince of Darkness sharing this moment really tells all you need to know about what this dinner has become in recent decades. It somehow manages to capture the zeitgeist just right at times. Here are some of the other highlights from recent years:

Clinton’s Farewell

Bill Clinton’s eight years in office has been described in many different ways but boring is certainly not one of them. While his presidency was dominated by big dramas like Whitewater, the health care debacle and the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment trial, Clinton came to his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2000 seemingly determined to prove that he hadn’t lost his sense of humore through it all. Indeed, his last year in office ended up as one of his best (who can forget the theatrical “solo” walk at the Democratic convention?) – and he set the tone for it at the dinner.

The use of pre-produced videos were nothing new in Clinton’s days but his team had always used them more effectively than most, starting with the “Man From Hope” bio produced for his 1992 campaign. Clinton rolled out the device once more at the 2000 dinner, with great effect. Casting the president as a down-and-out lame duck who has been deserted by nearly everyone in the White House, including his Senate-bound wife, the video showed Clinton aimlessly roaming the halls of the executive mansion, giving press briefings to a sleeping Helen Thomas and pruning shrubs. Still, the president found joy – and success – by the end of the video: discovering eBay, launching golf shots at political oppenents’ cars and finding a way to cheat the vending machines for some free ice cream. In other words, a perfect metaphor for his presidency.

Stephen’s Scolding

If Clinton’s final appearance was a celebratory one, the 2006 event led to widespread cringing. President Bush, whose popularity had dropped precipitously since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, tried to set the tone by poking some fun at himself alongside impersonator Steve Bridges (who served as Bush’s “internal voice”). The dueling W’s got most of the press coverage coming out of the night but what had everyone in Washington buzzing in the days afterward was Stephen Colbert’s stinging indictment of both the president and the press. Appearing in character (a faux Bill O’Reilly), Colbert was a big “get” for the dinner as one of the rising stars in political humor. Following in the footsteps of Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, it was the newcomer’s turn to wow Washington. And wow them he did. Colbert started out by likening himself to the president, alluding to the perception that both made decisions from their “gut,” not beholden to the “reality” based “factinista.” “I believe in this president,” he said.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Colbert then turned his sights on the press which, as an entity, had recently come under withering criticism for its coverage of the buildup to war in Iraq – most notably when it came to administration claims of weapons of mass destruction. Colbert explained the “rules” of covering the president: “The president makes decisions. He’s the decider.

The press secretary announces those decisions and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know – fiction.”

Colbert touched a nerve and the next year, the dinner featured ancient comedian Rich Little as the performer. Laura’s Turn It’s not always easy for a president to just cruise through the gauntlet of spring dinners. In addition to the main event in May, there’s also the Gridiron and the Radio and Television Correspondents dinners that, while not required, are often attended by the chief executive. Sure, they have plenty of writers to prepare the material but, let’s face it, they still have to perform. In 2005, President Bush took the year off from the spotlight and handed it over to the first lady, who simply “killed” in show business terms.

When the the president stood up and began rattling off some tired, old jokes, Laura Bush approached the stage and took over. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced, “I’ve been attending these dinners for years, and just quietly sitting there. Well, I’ve got a few things I want to say for a change.” The first lady commenced a round of jokes that were at times just as cutting as most professional comedians. “I am married to the President of the United States,” she complained, “and here is our typical evening. Nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I am watching Desperate Housewives. With Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentleman, I am a desperate housewife. I mean if those women on that show think they’re desperate they ought to be with George.” Needless, to say, the first lady was a big hit.

Non-WH Correspondent Moments

Because the dinner season all tends to run together, a few memorable events have taken place at events other than the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Most of these took place at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner (which is open to press coverage), not at the Gridiron Dinner (supposedly closed). Here are some examples from the RTC Dinner:

  • Radio host Don Imus caused a mini-scandal in 1996 when he joked about President Clinton’s, um, extraciricular activities, saying: “When Cal Ripkin broke Lou Gherig’s consecutive game record, the president was at Camden Yards doin’ play by play in the radio with John Miller. Bobby Bonilla hit a double, we all heard the President in his obvious excitement holler ‘Go Baby!’ I remember commenting at the time, I bet that’s not the first time he’s said that. Remember the Astroturf in the pickup?”
  • In 2004, President Bush drew criticism, even on the campaign trail, when a slideshow he narrated displayed a picture of him bending over near a desk looking for something. “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” he joked. Turned out that a failed rationale for going to war wasn’t very funny.
  • Vice President Dick Cheney takes the stage in place of the president in 2008, complete with fedora hat and sunglasses. Cheney, the butt of so many jokes at these dinners, dished back but also took some time to make light of himself. “Even my wife seems to think my image needs polishing,” he said. “At breakfast today I asked Lynn if, deep down, it bugs her that people have taken to calling me Darth Vader. She said, ‘Not at all. It humanizes you.’”
  • In 2007, Bush political brain Karl Rove turns in one of the most bizarre and disturbing “rap” performances of all time as “MC Rove” (alongside NBC correspondent David Gregory). Here’s how the Politico described the scene: “His arms flailed, he mugged, he shimmied, he crossed his hands, he backed it up, his BlackBerry became a prop, his voice went guttural, he took it up an octave. He waved, leaned back and exited the stage with both arms raised in victory.” This one has to be watched here.