Cheney, Romney shine at Correspondents Dinner


WASHINGTON -- While 10 million Americans watched Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spar in a televised debate Wednesday, about 1,000 politicians and journalists listened to the comedy stylings of Mitt Romney and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Last Wednesday was quite a day and night in and around the nation's capital. It was the second of a three-day visit by Pope Benedict XVI, which drew thousands and thousands of the faithful to Washington. The debate on ABC was happening about 90 minutes north in Philadelphia. And top it off, there was the annual Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner, a Washington tradition that goes back 64 years.

"Between the pope's visit and tonight's Democratic debate, it's nice to see so many of us came here tonight to honor one immutable journalistic tradition: Dropping everything for a free meal," joked dinner chairman and CBS News' Steve Chaggaris.

Several journalists admitted they were conflicted about whether to attend. Many in ABC's usual contingent were obviously otherwise occupied. Other journalists said they were TiVo'ing the debate, the 21st so far for the Democrats.

More than a few of the people who attended sneaked a look at their Blackberrys to find out how the debate was going. But few people wanted to run upstairs to McClellan's Sports Bar to watch, not so much because the dinner was so scintillating but because it's a drag going through a metal detector more than once a night.

Though former "Daily Show" correspondent Mo Rocca was on hand to perform, the biggest laughs came from two professional politicians, Romney and Cheney. Romney offered a partisan and charmingly self-deprecating Top 10 list that purported to explain why his presidential candidacy failed. He delivered one of many zingers at the expense of Al Gore: "I needed an excuse to get fat, grow a beard and try for the Nobel prize."

It went downhill from there. Cheney made his third appearance in four years at the dinner, and from a purely comedic standpoint, it's a shame this was his last as vice president. Cheney was wittier than he had been in previous years, slamming the Clintons, Obama and Gore, all in the space of 12 minutes.

"You know how to make a guy feel welcome," Cheney began. "Obviously you're not the kind to look down on a bitter man who clings to his guns."

The media took some shots, too. MSNBC was a favored target, as was CNN's moniker "Best Political Team on Television" -- "that's like the prettiest girl in accounting," Rocca said.

Cheney noted that Rocca used to host a TV program titled "Things I Hate About You." "I'm sure I've seen that program, only now I think it's called 'Countdown With Keith Olbermann,'" he joked.

But I couldn't help wondering if the real action was happening somewhere else. In years past at these dinners, I've seen various civilians -- you know, the one not in rented tuxes and dinner outfits -- come up to the Wolf Blitzers, Al Frankens and Lewis Blacks of the world to ask for their autograph. I didn't see that happen this year.

Maybe because on this day in Washington, there were plenty of people looking out for a different kind of celebrity. I was sitting in a cafe on Thursday when the usual calm was interrupted by lights and sirens and a fast-moving motorcade.

"Is that the president?" asked one of three women at a nearby table.

"Ooooh, do you think it's the pope?" asked another one.

It happened too fast for anyone to really know, although my guess is that it was probably the president. Three minutes later, we didn't have to wait. Another motorcade -- the pope's -- sped by.

This time, these celebrity watchers were ready. Said one of the women, "Now I've got my camera phone out."