As far as veteran comedian Rich Little is concerned, official Washington can relax. He won’t rock the boat, be rude to President Bush or mention the war in Iraq.
But he will make people laugh. Alas, even that has some people in Washington frowning.
Canadian-born Little, who shot to fame in the 1970s and 1980s with his imitations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and then lost the limelight, is the featured comedian at this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner on Saturday.
The event is usually billed as a one-night truce in the war between the journalists and public officials, who don tuxedos and gowns to attend along with a smattering of celebrities.
But last year, thanks to sharp comments from comedian Stephen Colbert, who specializes in mocking conservatives by playing one on his Comedy Central show, the night had for some an unusual, bitter taste.
With the president and first lady only a few feet away, Colbert went on the attack: “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
Colbert also raised some hackles among the assembled Washington reporters with barbs characterizing them as far too uncritical.
A year after Colbert was chosen, the White House Correspondents Association has opted for a noncontroversial choice in Little — an old-line comedian who boasts that he does not do political jokes even though he imitates eight presidents.
The result — the association is getting attacked for ”cozying up to the Bush administration,” as Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the liberal blog the Daily Kos, put it to The New York Times.
For Steve Scully of C-Span, the president of the White house Correspondents Association, this is a game where you can neither win nor lose, no matter what you do. He chose Little this year and had a hand in picking Colbert last year.
“I picked Rich Little because I think he is funny,” Scully said in an interview, adding:
“This is a dinner we put together and invite the president to. He does not have to be our guest. We want an enjoyable evening, Rich Little has been doing presidential humor for 40 years, and I am certain that his humor will resonate.”
Little says his plan of action for the evening is simple: “I am going to go to Washington and entertain for 30 to 40 minutes. I don’t do political jokes. I do presidential imitations. I am not a political satirist, just an entertainer.”
In an interview with Reuters, he added, “I can do eight presidents, but I only plan to do six.” Among them will be Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Clinton and, of course, Nixon.
“I don’t know why I was invited; perhaps they wanted a different type of comedian this year. ... But I did the dinner in 1984 when Reagan was president . I loved him, he was the best audience in the world.”
Little dropped by the White House press room in Washington on Friday a day ahead of his performance and offered a flavor of his material. His imitations of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were as good as they have ever been.
According to Little, Reagan once asked the comedian to finish a news conference for him because “you do me better than I do. ... All I ask is, don’t get us into a war.”