WASHINGTON – President Bush, deferring to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, passed up any attempt to be funny at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday, leaving those efforts to impersonator Rich Little.
Returning to the podium at the annual dinner after 23 years, Little made good on his promise to be gentle.
Little's material was safe if occasionally a little raunchy. He dusted off his impersonations of six presidents, from Nixon to the current occupant of the White House, and avoided any reference to current political issues.
After one joke bombed, he said, "And you thought (Stephen) Colbert was bad."
Best known for his impersonations of Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson, Rich was the featured act for the glitzy dinner with Bush, Cabinet secretaries, foreign dignitaries, Hollywood celebrities and members of the press.
Unlike previous comedians at the dinner, he had no competition from Bush, who at times has shown a deft comedic touch himself in his annual monologue.
Bush said it was important for people in Washington "to learn to laugh" and that the ability for a nation to poke fun at its leaders is good for democracy.
"I was looking forward to doing a little poking myself but in light of this tragedy at Virginia Tech I decided not to be funny," he said.
He noted that many journalists in the room have had a tough week, reporting from Virginia Tech and said "this dinner comes at a good time."
With that, he introduced Little for the laughs.
Little had said in advance that both Republicans and Democrats should expect nothing more than gentle jokes at their expense during the dinner, an annual tradition started by President Calvin Coolidge.
Last year, Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," lampooned the administration and the Washington press corps as Bush looked on unamused amid a crowd's laughter that was nervous at times.
Little made fun of Bush's occasional difficulties with language — imitating Bush talking about this "warathon thing against all extreministic fractions" — but even that was inadvertently upstaged by Bush himself.
Before Bush and Little spoke, CBS star David Letterman made a video appearance from his studio with a top 10 list of taped vignettes showing some of the funniest Bush flubs as president.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who has suffered a recurrence of cancer, got a warm reception when he joined Bush at the head table. He promised to return to the White House briefing podium soon for more jousting with the press corps. "We'll have that entertainment again, trust me," he said. It was his first public appearance since he announced March 27 that his cancer, originally in his colon, had returned.
Among the guests at the People Magazine table was Sanjaya Malakar, the "American Idol" finalist who became famous for his hair despite singing that got mixed reviews. He was voted off the show Tuesday night.
More traditional celebrities on the correspondents' dinner guest list included country stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, singer Sheryl Crow, actor John Cusack, actress Mary Tyler Moore and comic Larry David.
Washington heavyweights invited by various news outlets included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and CIA director Michael Hayden. Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has faced down calls for his resignation this week from fellow Republicans, was also expected, as was Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader who has been dogged by money laundering charges.
The association presented a $5,000 check to the Virginia Tech student paper to help its coverage in the aftermath of the massacre there last Monday.
"It meant a lot to the whole student body," said Amie Steele, editor of the Collegiate Times.
Half the crowd chanted "Let's Go" and the other half changed "Hokies." Then they joined in a standing ovation.
The association also was presenting its top reporting awards, announced earlier this month:
—David Sanger of the New York Times and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, the Merriman Smith Award, the top journalism award for White House reporting under deadline pressure.
Sanger was recognized for his report on North Korea's nuclear test. Raddatz won for her coverage of the death of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
—Kenneth Walsh of U.S. News and World Report, the Aldo Beckman award for an in-depth look at Vice President Dick Cheney's place in the administration. The award is given for repeated excellence in White House reporting.
—Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Edgar A. Poe Award for a series on Iraq war veterans with missing limbs. The Poe award recognizes excellence in news of national and regional importance.
The association was established in 1914 as a bridge between the press corps and the White House. The current president is Steve Scully of C-SPAN.