Take My President, Please

The first lady’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was so funny I forgot to laugh.

The only thing duller than watching the White House Correspondents Association Dinner on C-Span is actually attending it—take it from someone who’s done both in one weekend. This year’s event combined the stodgy bonhomie of a Masonic lodge meeting with the dinky pageantry of a junior-high pep rally. (It’s hard to get loose at a party at which two versions of the Marine hymn are played before dinner.)

When I realized from the sheer scale of the gathering—3,000-plus people dining in a ballroom the size of a football field—that I’d have to give up my dream of collaring Chris Matthews for a drunken bull session, only the charming company of a fellow Slate writer who’s an endless font of D.C. gossip kept me from sneaking out to the movies. And I’m glad to hear that Fishbowl DC enjoyed his “liberal amounts of tableside vino,” but I barely managed to score a glass and half for myself before our table’s four bottles were empty—not near enough to make Cedric the Entertainer’s Condi impersonation yield more than a wan chuckle.

“First Lady … of laughs”

The big take-away meme from the event seems to be that Laura Bush stole the show with her unexpected takeover of her husband’s speech, which turned into a roast written by conservative gag-writer Landon Parvin. (Click here for complete transcript.) One of the New York tabloids has a banner headline today proclaiming her “the First Lady … of laughs!” and at a press event today the president dubbed his wife“Laura Leno Bush.” I’m with him on that: neither Leno nor Laura is very funny.

In an interview with The New Yorker last year, Parvin told Elizabeth Kolbert, “A politician will be in trouble and he’ll say, ‘Will you do me some lines on it?’, because he’s heard that humor can get him out of trouble. I tell them, depending on the situation, ‘No, this is trouble. You should not make fun of this.’ ” Apparently Parvin’s instincts were off at last year’s Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, where a slide show he co-wrote of Bush poking around the White House, looking for WMD’s under the furniture, drew a strong backlash the next day. A lot of people, including some war veterans, didn’t double over in mirth at the idea that over 500 American troops (the number has since more than tripled) had lost their lives in a war over … what again?

But this year, Parvin understood a truth that Bush’s handlers had already grasped during last year’s campaign: Approval ratings down? Insurgency spiraling out of control? Better wheel out the librarian. Something about Laura Bush’s honeyed voice and PTA-mom manner makes appalling truths—Iraq is a quagmire; our leadership has no idea what to do about it; the Cabinet is a macho, insular boys’ club—seem more worthy of eye-rolling than hand-wringing.

Laura Bush’s delivery of Parvin’s script was effectively sassy. She seemed to be enjoying her zingers about her husband’s low-energy management style (“I said to him the other day, ‘George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.’ “) And the crowd roared in appreciative delight—though let’s face it, this particular crowd knew which side their bread was buttered on. Plus, as we saw during the Republican National Convention, Laura Bush could get a standing ovation for coming to the podium and belching.

Laura’s image of Bush, fresh from Andover and Yale, beginning his ranching career by trying to milk a male horse, made for a gratifyingly naughty giggle at an event whose sexiest moment up to then was when Alan Greenspan walked by chatting up Goldie Hawn. But however charming her drawl, it was hard not to squirm at Laura’s blithe assertion that “George’s answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chainsaw. Which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well.” That comparison of the president’s ranching style to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—one of her speech’s better lines—was kind of cute, until you carried the analogy to its logical conclusion: The way Bush runs a ranch is similar to the way he conducts the business of state. The way Bush runs a ranch is clueless, absolutist, and wantonly destructive. Ergo …

You’ve been a great crowd, ladies and gentlemen. The first lady will be here all week.