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A National Sense of Humor

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

May 9, 2005

The White House Correspondent's Dinner is one of official Washington's signature events; the chance for the media and political elite to break bread, tip a glass, and not take each other too seriously.

For a political junkie like me, this is a great event to watch on C-Span. In addition to a respite from the usual partisan rancor, the event usually features a hilarious commentary from the President of the United States.

This year's event started out like many others, but everything changed after President Bush's introduction.

The President gave his introductory remarks, then launched into a not-so-funny cattle joke. First Lady Laura Bush groaned out loud, pushed back her seat at the head table, and walked to the podium. President Bush feigned surprise, but yielded his place at the lectern.

Mrs. Bush proceeded to deliver one of the funniest - albeit risqué - speeches I've ever heard in an official setting. The most amazing thing about the speech, replayed twice on C-Span, was the sense of comedic timing demonstrated by the First Lady.

Henny Youngman would have been proud, and Milton Berle would have "borrowed" her jokes!

Mrs. Bush's reference to ABC's hit show "Desperate Housewives" generated waves of laughter. She mentioned how she and several other prominent women in government had visited a strip club, and how Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, was now known as "Dollar Bill" by the Secret Service.

This wasn't the most controversial aspect of the evening, though. Mrs. Bush then told a story about the President learning how to function on their Crawford, Texas, ranch.

She mentioned that he had gone to the barn to do the milking chores. Unfortunately, he tried to milk a horse (big, predictable laugh). She hit the home run after a well-timed comedic pause, when she mentioned that he was milking a male horse!

In addition to torrents a laughter, audible groans share the event soundtrack. Mrs. Bush didn't blush or even bat an eye. She went on to the next joke like a seasoned stand-up comic.

I will readily admit that this is NOT a joke I'd expect from the First Lady, much less a First Lady as classy, dignified, and graceful as Laura Bush.

On the other hand, who am I to say what satirical content is appropriate for anyone else? My recollection of past White House Correspondents Dinners is that the jokes are often raunchy, intended to offend with love and respect.

It's not like this event is geared towards children or presented for a national audience. In fact, if it weren't for the nature of the joke and the fact that Laura Bush was the person telling it, I doubt this would ever have been a news story.

Conservative Christian watchdogs, self-proclaimed media witch hunters, and liberal pundits looking to score points on the President have seized this rare chance to express their shock and disgust.

Disgust! About what? Are we upset that Laura Bush said something shocking? Are we angry that she said something that, while funny, couldn't be shared with our pastor's wife?

Maybe our collective conscience is so advanced and moral that bawdy jokes no longer have a place in our national lexicon. Or maybe these same jokes are okay on our back porches, just not coming from the First Lady.

A weird phenomenon has arisen in the last few days. Liberal commentators on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are suggesting that Hillary Clinton would have been pilloried over a similar joke.

They suggest that Laura got a pass because the Christian right can't take her on since they're too heavily invested in her man. Unfortunately, I've heard several Christian leaders express outrage over Mrs. Bush's performance, so that argument falls a little flat.

One preacher went so far as to suggest that Mrs. Bush needed her mouth washed out with soap on national television. I remember that, Mom, and it wasn't fun!

Finally, I can't get over how silly this whole thing seems. Remember, we're talking about an event known for bawdy and raucous humor, mostly directed at the leader of the free world.

Over the years, Presidents have been ribbed about in-breeding (Jimmy Carter), extramarital affairs (Bill Clinton), and old age virility (Ronald Reagan) at this very same event.

The world didn't come crashing to an end, our moral values were not eroded, and no one died. The fact that Laura Bush pulled off a great bit of standup at the President's expense in front of a paying audience at an event where these things normally happen suggests this whole outrage thing is a little overblown.

A sense of humor would go a long way toward overcoming historic hatred and divisions within our Nation. Maybe one lady's harmless effort at making us laugh at ourselves would be a good starting point!

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