One night a year, Washington kicks up its heels

As the paparazzi descended on Washington for the biggest celebrity event of the year, an aide to President George W. Bush whispered a private apology at the White House Correspondents Association dinner: This is a Republican administration, he said with a shrug, so Hollywood largely stays away.

No doubt film stars, television personalities, and sporting heroes would have been there in even greater numbers on Saturday night had there been a Democrat in the Oval Office - but the annual gathering of White House politicians and the journalists who cover them still makes for the most glamorous get-together of the year.

In a town where people mutter excitedly under their breath if they spot veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas across the room or find themselves in the same restaurant as Ted Kennedy, the red-carpet gala dinner qualified as a tidal wave of glitz.

Ben Affleck was there and swamped by people - women, mostly - more than happy to set aside wonkish conversation for a moment with an A-list celebrity. Drew Barrymore and Meg Ryan gave D.C. a badly needed touch of nighttime L.A. Serena Williams, awesome enough in her tennis clothes, was in an even more eye-catching emerald number.

Jay Leno provided the merciless entertainment. He made fun of Dick Cheney: The main course was beef, he explained, because the vice president and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had had a disappointing duck-hunting trip last weekend. [Editor's note: In the original version, Scalia's first name was misspelled.]

He joked about our relationship with the French, showing mock footage of Laura Bush disinfecting her hand after it was kissed by President Jacques Chirac.

He poked fun at John Kerry, saying the Democratic challenger had done better than raising $50 million in three months by snagging $500 million in a minute when he proposed to heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry.

He made fun of Condoleezza Rice, comparing the national security adviser's hair to Al Sharpton's coiffure.

And, of course, he made fun of the president. Mr. Bush, he said, was not in the presidency for the money, but for the "eight months of vacation each year" (a nod to the complaint that Bush has spent too much time on his ranch in Crawford, Texas).

Last year when Bush addressed the White House correspondents' dinner, he gave the laugh lines a miss. The war in Iraq had just begun and, with American service men and women in combat, he chose to replace the traditional self-mocking humor with a solemn eulogy to those journalists who had died in the Gulf.

This year, as the president struggles to make a success of Iraq and battles for a second term, his speech was neither one thing nor the other. It was not, as it has been in recent years, a case of the president roasting himself. Nor was it a wartime address. It was a bit of both.

He started by saying that he had planned to deliver a bunch of self- deprecating jokes, but could not think of any mistakes he'd made to be self-deprecating about - a reference to his halting answer to a question in last month's press conference when he was asked what was his biggest mistake and what he had learned from it.

But then he dramatically switched tone. "As I speak, men and women in uniform are taking great risks and so are many journalists being faithful to their own sense of duty," he said, referring to the people serving and working in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the night wore on, which it rarely does in early-to-bed, early-to-work Washington, the weighty issues troubling the capital were left behind and invited administration officials, journalists, and celebrity guests lined up to enter an even more exclusive shindig, a party thrown by Bloomberg News.

At this bash, there was Mr. Affleck regaling an admirer with the story that he was going to run for Congress; there was Wayne Newton expressing his respect and thanks to the troops; and there was Ms. Barrymore - in one minute, gone the next.

But then, with the notable exception of the 40th president of the United States, Hollywood stars rarely stay for long stretches in a Republican Washington.

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