Party of the Damned

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 28, 2008; 11:13 AM

As the Bush presidency staggers to an end, it's hard to say who has less to brag about: the president or the journalists who cover him. So it's fitting that the last White House Correspondents' Association dinner of the Bush era -- the ultimate celebration of chumminess between the most powerful people in the world and those who are supposed to hold them accountable -- was a dispiriting, mostly humorless affair.

President Bush phoned in his appearance, uttering a few topical one-liners but leaning primarily on greatest-hits footage from previous performances -- and wrapping up with a cartoonish but crowd-pleasing "conducting" of the Marine band.

Comedian Craig Ferguson essentially apologized in advance for his understated headlining performance -- a far cry from the withering diatribe delivered by Stephen Colbert two years ago.

"I spoke to a lot of journalists, about how I should speak up here," Ferguson said near the outset. "And everyone -- all the journalists said: 'Craig, your duty is speak truth to power. That's what you do: You hold the truth up for everyone to see. . . . And I am sorry, I don't see it that way. That is your job. I am a late night television show guy."

Ferguson, who seemed happiest making fun of Canadians and Belgians, took a few gentle shots at his audience. "I want to talk tonight about the respect I have for the American media," he said. "It is your task to watch the government, to make sure they do not exceed their power. Well done on that, by the way, the last eight years."

He joked about what sort of work Bush could do after leaving office. "You could look for a job with more vacation time." He said that Vice President Cheney "is already moving out of his residence. It takes longer than you think to pack up an entire dungeon."

But the only time he really showed teeth was to attack the no-show New York Times. "The New York Times unfortunately did not buy a table," he said. "They felt that this event 'undercuts the credibility of the press.'

"It's funny, you see, I thought that Jayson Blair and Judy Miller took care of that. What? . . . Did I go too far? Now let me try this: Shut the hell up, New York Times, you sanctimonious whining jerks!"

In the audience at the dinner and at its endless pre- and post-parties, a fin-de-siecle degeneracy was on full display. Throngs surrounded aging professional floozy Pamela Anderson, a guest of Bloomberg, who happily posed for countless photos in a dress that exposed the preponderance of her two most outstanding achievements. Key members of the White House's torture-management team-- Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state Colin Powell -- along with leading torture apologists -- Attorney General Michael Mukasey, CIA Director Michael Hayden, former White House spokesman Tony Snow and current spokeswoman Dana Perino -- were fawned over as honored guests.

In one of his few winning lines, Bush made this astute observation: "Pamela Anderson and Mitt Romney in the same room? Isn't that one of the signs of the apocalypse?" At the end of his speech, the man who waged war against the press received a standing ovation from the conquered.

On Video

Watch it yourself if you dare. Here is video of the red carpet arrivals and the entire dinner. Here is the Bush performance and the Ferguson performance. Here is footage of the swampy hell that was the Bloomberg after-party.

The Coverage

Michael Scherer writes for Time that Bush "rose to offer C-SPAN viewers another reason to doubt political journalists' ability to be anything but cowardly suck-ups to presidential pomp. In recent years, this event has been known mainly for the fantastic performance in 2006 of Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central host, who addressed the crowd with a withering critique of both the failures of President Bush and the media. . . .

"Neither the press nor the president had a rebuttal to Colbert, then or now, so he was simply not invited back and officially forgotten. Ever since, the dinner had been a far less newsworthy affair. As is tradition, the president stood to do a short stand up act, which included the retelling of an old joke about Vice President Dick Cheney watching Bush through a peephole in the Oval Office door while masturbating. Such is the state of Washington humor.

"'This is a good chance to put aside our differences for a few hours,' Bush said at another point. Then he drew from his podium a conductor's baton and turned his back to the audience of reporters and their guests. The curtains parted, revealing the U.S. Marine Band, which Bush then pretended to conduct in a recitation of 'Stars and Stripes Forever.' Though unstated, the joke was apparently that we in the press corps had been given a brief respite from following [the] rise and fall of the White House conductor's baton. For tonight, at least, Bush would manipulate another institution instead."

William Triplett writes for Variety: "D.C.'s media prom night, more commonly known as the White House Correspondents Dinner, was the usual preening lovefest between power and celebrity. Yes, journalism awards were handed out -- the original purpose of the dinner -- but while that was happening, the din of partygoers asking one another about sightings of the famous as well as other, more pressing matters ('Hey, remember me?') all but drowned out the announcements.

"President Bush, in his last appearance as prom king, offered up funny snippets of video from his previous appearances as he set a mildly wistful and occasionally self-mocking tone. Even the entertainment provided by Craig Ferguson of CBS' 'The Late Late Show,' while sometimes edgy, was more or less in line with the largely self-celebrating spirit of the evening."

Christine Simmons writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush poked fun at his potential successors Saturday night, expressing surprise that none of them were in the audience at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner.

"'Senator McCain's not here,' Bush said of GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain. 'He probably wanted to distance himself from me a little bit. You know, he's not alone. Jenna's moving out too.'

"Bush then referred to scandals that have dogged the campaigns of the two remaining Democratic candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, in explaining their absence: 'Hillary Clinton couldn't get in because of sniper fire and Senator Obama's at church.'

"During the ongoing campaign, Clinton mistakenly claimed to have landed under sniper fire in Bosnia as first lady. Obama's longtime Chicago pastor has been criticized for his negative comments about America."

Celeste Katz writes in the New York Daily News: "Former Bay Watch babe Pamela Anderson and a woman who swallowed a live scorpion were the stars of an after-party that followed Saturday's annual White House Correspondents Dinner.

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Digital camera in hand, a slightly drunk guest at the Bloomberg party teetered by us early Sunday and stopped short. 'I'm taking a picture of Pamela Anderson,' she announced to her date.

"'Get the boobs,' he said.

"Which, when it comes down to it, is what the after-parties -- and Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner itself -- have come to: A-, B- and C-listers brandishing their talents, figuratively and literally, at Washington's press prom."

And what did British actor Rupert Everett thinks about the dinner?

"'Hideous,' he said flatly. 'One of the most hideous events I've ever been to.'"

Toby Harnden writes in the Telegraph that "Anderson joked afterwards that she had 'thought this was the 'White Trash Correspondents' Dinner.'"

Frank James blogs for Tribune about more hijinks, including when "[a] college student the height of an NBA forward took climbed the stage to be recognized for winning a correspondents' association scholarship and to get a handshake from and photo with the president.

"Bush stepped up onto a chair to pose with the kid, to make himself taller than the kid, get it? It was a goofball thing to do but there he was, the president of the U.S. being a goofball.

"This got a lot of laughs and applause. More proof that Bush may be one of the best comedians to ever become president."

Here's more coverage from Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post; Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune; Brian DeBose of the Washington Times; and Tim Harper of the Toronto Star.

Here are lots of photos from Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle and Patrick Gavin of FishbowlDC. Here are celebrity interviews with washingtonpost.com Celebritology blogger Liz Kelly.

What I'm still waiting for: Blog posts from the journalists at the head table. Ken Herman blogs about almost anything White House-related for Cox News Service, and has posted some limited video footage-- but so far hasn't published a word about what it was like sitting between Dick and Lynne Cheney all night. Also no posts from frequent ABC News blogger Ann Compton, who as president of the association sat next to Bush.

(She told me that she found Bush in good spirits -- irritated only by the rudeness of the crowd when it wouldn't quiet down during the scholarship presentations.)

Here's celebrity-blogger/guest Perez Hilton's post on the evening.

Torture Watch

Meanwhile. . . .

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "The Justice Department has told Congress that American intelligence operatives attempting to thwart terrorist attacks can legally use interrogation methods that might otherwise be prohibited under international law.

"The legal interpretation, outlined in recent letters, sheds new light on the still-secret rules for interrogations by the Central Intelligence Agency. It shows that the administration is arguing that the boundaries for interrogations should be subject to some latitude, even under an executive order issued last summer that President Bush said meant that the C.I.A. would comply with international strictures against harsh treatment of detainees.

"While the Geneva Conventions prohibit 'outrages upon personal dignity,' a letter sent by the Justice Department to Congress on March 5 makes clear that the administration has not drawn a precise line in deciding which interrogation methods would violate that standard, and is reserving the right to make case-by-case judgments.

"'The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act,' said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public. . . .

"Some legal experts critical of the Justice Department interpretation said the department seemed to be arguing that the prospect of thwarting a terror attack could be used to justify interrogation methods that would otherwise be illegal.

"'What they are saying is that if my intent is to defend the United States rather than to humiliate you, than I have not committed an offense,' said Scott L. Silliman, who teaches national security law at Duke University.

"But a senior Justice Department official strongly challenged this interpretation on Friday, saying that the purpose of the interrogation would be just one among many factors weighed in determining whether a specific procedure could be used. . . .

"In one letter written Sept. 27, 2007, Mr. Benczkowski argued that 'to rise to the level of an outrage' and thus be prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, conduct 'must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that should be universally condemned.'"

Evan Perez and Siobhan Gorman write in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Despite a presidential order designed to clarify the limits on interrogation practices, new Justice Department letters to Congress appear to muddy the public understanding of what is and isn't legal when intelligence officials question terrorism suspects. . . .

"The letters from Brian A. Benczkowski, principal deputy assistant attorney general, show that the Bush administration has an opaque view of the legal limits it and Congress have imposed on CIA interrogations. Beyond not making the techniques in use public, it appears the administration feels that whether certain techniques are acceptable depends on the case at hand."

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden "had written the department several times in the past year seeking clarification from the administration. 'It certainly makes their position less clear at a time when, not just in our country but around the world, people are trying to figure out where the U.S. stands,' he said.

"Sen. Wyden says the letters will help make the case that there needs to be a law that explicitly puts the CIA interrogations under the same restrictions as the military, or some other set of clear standards."

Legal blogger Sandy Levinson writes that there is "a certain logical paradox here: The very fact that the some US interrogator would suggest that some particular conduct is 'reasonable' in some situation would, by definition, mean that there is not 'universal' condemnation of the practice. This is especially true if one accepts the DOJ argument that 'The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act.' Once one allows what might be termed 'purity of utilitarian motive' to dominate the analysis, the game is over, for there will always be those who will argue that it is worth doing practically anything to forestall any 'terrorist attack.'"

Phillip Carter blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Among the more Kafkaesque arguments proffered by the Bush administration for its coercive interrogation (or torture) regime is this: Cruel, inhuman or degrading acts are not torture if they're done with good intentions."

Gitmo Watch

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "When military prosecutors enter Guantanamo's heavily guarded courtroom Monday, they can expect to face a spectacle: their former boss, in uniform, testifying against them.

"Col. Morris Davis, for two years the chief Guantanamo prosecutor, is expected to testify that the operation he once led has been infected with political agendas and corrupted by the Achilles' heel of military justice -- unlawful command influence.

"The Bush administration's military commissions plan has careered through internal disarray, administrative setbacks and legal debacles since the president announced it in November 2001, and still has yet to conduct a single trial. But Col. Davis's appearance may be the strangest twist yet.

"'It's not that I'm sympathetic to the detainees or say they should get a free pass,' says Col. Davis, now director of the Air Force Judiciary. 'But I do think they are entitled to a fair trial.'"

Iran Watch

This sounded pretty alarming to me.

Ann Scott Tyson writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "The nation's top military officer said yesterday that the Pentagon is planning for 'potential military courses of action' as one of several options against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's 'increasingly lethal and malign influence' in Iraq.

" Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be 'extremely stressing' but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force.

"'It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability,' he said at a Pentagon news conference. . . .

"Mullen made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution and does not expect imminent action. 'I have no expectations that we're going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future,' he said."

Abbas Watch

Mohammed Daragmeh writes for the Associated Press: "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday he failed to achieve any progress in Middle East peace talks with President Bush and was returning home with little to show for his visit. . . .

"'We demanded the Americans implement the first phase of the road map that talks about the cessation of settlement expansion,' Abbas said, expressing disappointment the U.S. hasn't exerted more pressure on Israel to stop. 'This is the biggest blight that stands as a big rock in the path of negotiations.'

"Asked for comment, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: 'President Bush is helping to push the process forward. This wasn't a meeting in which major breakthroughs were expected."

Bright Young Aide Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "A bright young aide who has worked himself or herself up from a modest staff job gets rewarded with a plum assignment that might ordinarily go to a graybeard.

"So Kristen L. Silverberg, who got her start in the administration in 2001 as an assistant to then-deputy chief of staff Joshua M. Bolten, was named last week to serve out the term -- and possibly beyond -- as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, the White House announced last week.

"Silverberg, 37, a onetime clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, has been working as assistant secretary of state for international organizations. She also worked for such administration luminaries as then-senior adviser Karl Rove and then-chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., and did a stint in Iraq."

Abramowitz also notes: "The schedule is coming into focus for President Bush's second trip to the Middle East this year: He is planning to visit Israel next month to celebrate the country's 60th anniversary. While in Israel, Bush appears likely to visit Masada, the desert fortress overlooking the Dead Sea where nearly 1,000 Jews committed suicide in the 1st century rather than being taken alive by the Romans."

Third Term Watch

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "The joke, beloved by those who see George W. Bush on a glide path toward the presidential hall of shame, says there's talk of a third term for him: 20 years to life.

"The talk on the campaign trail, embraced by those who want to put a Democrat in the White House, also is about a third term for Bush, channeled through U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on McCain's brain.

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