tv reporter

Correspondents have full plates at banquet

While 10 million Americans watched 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.

Wednesday was quite a day and night in and around the nation's capitol. It was the second of a three-day visit by Pope Benedict XVI, which drew thousands of the faithful to Washington. The debate on ABC was happening about 90 minutes north in Philadelphia. And to top it off, there was the annual Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner, a Washington tradition that dates 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," dinner chairman and CBS Newser Steve Chaggaris joked.

Several journalists admitted they were conflicted about whether to attend. Many in ABC's contingent obviously were otherwise occupied. Others said they were recording the debate, the 21st for the Democrats.

More than a few who attended snuck 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 scintillating but because it's a drag going through a metal detector more than once a night.

Although former "Daily Show" correspondent Mo Rocca was on hand to perform, the biggest laughs came from two professional politicos, Romney and Cheney. Romney offered a charmingly self-deprecating top 10 list to explain why his presidential candidacy failed. He delivered one of many zingers at the expense of Al Gore saying: "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. He was wittier than he had been in previous years, slamming Hillary and Bill Clinton, 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 civilians 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 it's because on this day in D.C., there were plenty of people looking out for a different kind of celebrity. I was sitting in a cafe Thursday when the usual calm was interrupted by lights, sirens and a motorcade.

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

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

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

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