Presidential prerequisite: wit

If possessing a great WIT is a prime prerequisite for attaining the presidency, then Sen. John McCain seems to have the "right stuff." He poked fun at himself at the annual Gridiron Show the other night with such delightful skill - while the audience howled - that, at least in the old days, he would have clearly shown his credentials to run toward the White House.

Some old-timers were recalling afterward that not since then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, won raves for his performance at Gridiron had we seen such a boffo performance. News of Kennedy's speaking triumph was soon the talk in political circles all around the US. It was when many political bigwigs - who were holding back their approval of Kennedy - began to take him seriously.

Now could that happen to Mr. McCain? Yes, it's possible - even though the road ahead for him would be a rough one. There's George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander and many others who already are out there ahead of him. Also, it is said, McCain isn't "right" on some key Republican issues.

But Kennedy had an even tougher obstacle: He had to break through the public and political resistance to a Roman Catholic becoming president.

"What," you will be asking, "did McCain say that was so funny?" Well, he didn't do it with a lot of one-liners - the usual fare.

First, you must remember that McCain underwent the pain of five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Thus, he scored with peals of laughter as he stood up before us with his chest covered with fake military medals. Then, with tongue firmly in cheek, McCain indicated he was just right to be our next president because he was an "incredibly self-effacing guy" and "a genuine war hero."

Then again and again McCain would say he would never mention what a great hero he was - and then once again say it: to more and more laughter. At one point he said, "The one thing that sustained me through those hellish years was the thought that someday I would come home and invent the Internet." Here was a jibe at Al Gore's claim that he created the Internet.

Also: "As I was lying there in my prison cell in Hanoi having my legs broken by interrogators, I was sustained by the thought that someday I will come home and do something about soft money and PACs."

Also: "OK, John, you are an incredible war hero, an inspiration to all, but what qualifies you to be president?" He said he decided that being in a prison cell was "perfect training for the Oval Office. Every time someone walks in the door, you know it's gonna be bad news."

I talked to fellow Gridironer Charles McDowell, of the Richmond, Va., Times Dispatch, right after McCain sat down. Mr. McDowell, who has participated in putting on the show for more than a generation, said it was the best speech he'd heard over the years. He agreed that it was like Kennedy's performance of years ago: More an event than just a speech.

I next talked to Commerce Secretary William Daley as he walked by. Though a Democrat, he, too, gave high praise to McCain's speech. Indeed, there was a buzz all around: "What a great speech," "What a great speech."

Oh, yes, some other notable things happened at the Gridiron dinner show. People wondered, in advance, whether the president would be cut up badly by the satire and comments he would hear all evening. No, the sex-related jokes did hit Mr. Clinton quite hard - but they singed and stopped short of burning.

And the president seemed to be enjoying himself throughout. If he sweated, he didn't let it show. He was in top form as a speaker, and people were laughing about his final quip as they filed out to the hotel exits.

"Let's don't kid each other," Clinton said, "this was an awful year. It was a year I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."

But then he paused and slowly smiled. "I take that back."

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