The White House theater was not built for stand-up comedy. But two Fridays ago, Laura Bush was definitely, as they say at the Friars Club, "in the house." She was practicing a then secret, now acclaimed comedy routine that she would deliver the next night at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, a tribal feast on the Potomac where some 3,000 reporters--and their sources--converge in a hotel ballroom for steak and fish, wine and laughs. Traditionally, the President does the wisecracking. But earlier this year, after surveying the string of press dinners on his calendar, Bush told aides, "Laura should give one of these." So there she was, rehearsing her shtick in front of her staff and Bush aides Nicolle Devenish and Dan Bartlett, as well as Landon Parvin, who penned her jokes. As she practiced, Laura cracked herself up but also asked her audience, "Do y'all think this is funny?"
They did, and they weren't alone. Mrs. Bush brought down the house the next night with a string of withering one-liners that skewered her husband's sleeping (and, well, never mind) habits, her in-laws' hyperkinetic vacation style, the Vice President's seemingly willful resistance to exercise and, of course, her own poor, pitiful plight as a long-suffering spouse. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife," she deadpanned. "I mean, if those women on that show think they're desperate, they oughta be with George." If the performance turns out to be Laura's most memorable, it was also a reminder that the least outspoken First Lady since Pat Nixon nonetheless plays a crucial role in her husband's presidency, reminding his critics that someone can, if nothing else, bring him down to size. Plus, she's the ultimate character witness. A Republican lobbyist remarked after her performance, "He must not be all bad if she likes him."
The comic tonic came at a helpful moment for the Bush operation, which is off to one of the slowest second-term starts in memory. The President's plan for an overhaul of Social Security is flat on its back, and most Washington Republicans privately say it's unlikely to get back up. Bush's popularity is sagging again, as gasoline prices have jumped, the economy has struggled to show sustained momentum, and American casualties in Iraq are mounting. Several veteran reporters at the White House correspondents' dinner noted that one reason the comedy routine fell to Laura was that Bush didn't have much to joke about.