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Choice of headliner raises questions about White House press corps

WASHINGTON—Talk about taking the edge off of edgy.

Impressionist Rich Little hasn't been hot since Nehru Jackets and go-go boots were hip. But the mild-mannered 68-year-old nightclub performer will be the headline act at Saturday's White House Correspondents Association dinner—and the salve for the dagger-sharp tongue of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who at last year's dinner satirically slashed President Bush and the Washington press corps beyond recognition.

The selection of Little after Colbert's pointed monologue has produced tons of jokes (What? Nipsey Russell wasn't available?) and amplified screams from the blogosphere that Little's invitation proves how soft the White House press corps is on Bush.

"Hmmm, let's see: Stephen Colbert—Rich Little," said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Let's pull it back a little—back to the 1960s."

The idea behind hiring Little—best known for his impressions of Richard Nixon, Clint Eastwood and other old-school personalities—was to have a nice dinner where Bush could get "singed but not burned" by the evening's entertainment, according to Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents Association.

"You can't invite a guest of honor to come and be a political pinata," said Scully, a political editor at C-SPAN. "There's a very fine line we don't want to cross out of respect for the institution of the presidency."

Some people thought Colbert—who plays a mock conservative commentator on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report"—crossed that line, though no one from the White House complained.

With the president seated nearby, Colbert likened Bush's second-term reshuffling of his Cabinet to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg." He told the packed ballroom that "if anybody needs anything else at their tables, speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers. Somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail."

Colbert's routine made some guests squirm—and made him a hero among media critics, liberal bloggers and YouTube viewers.

"Mr. Colbert's performance, in my view, is one of the greatest pieces of political satire in years—it will stand forever," said Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media-watchdog group. "The White House press corps has been a little too cozy with the president for years. Colbert gave the game away. These dinners should be re-evaluated. They don't serve the public's interest or the public's need to know."

Little states flatly that he's no Stephen Colbert. He assures that he won't leave guests sweating uncomfortably in their tuxedoes and evening gowns.

"I'm more interested in the impression than to make some political statement," Little told ABC News last week. "And . . . it's probably a safer route for them. They had, what's his name, Steve Colbert last year, and I thought he was very good, but he did take some jabs at the president, and I don't think that's a good idea to do that."

It seems that humor—or what passes for it—has been no laughing matter lately. Radio shock jock Don Imus found himself unemployed last week after he made sexist and racially tinged cracks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

And while many insiders thought that Bush's political guru Karl Rove stole the show at last month's Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner with an "MC Rove" rap routine, the skit left several African-American bloggers open-jawed.

"Quite possibly one of the worst displays of Beltway tomfoolery I've seen since former RNC chair, the late Lee Atwater, and former President George H.W. Bush cooned to the music of B.B. King at the latter's inaugural ball," read a post on Afro-netizen.com.

Bush was accused of crossing the comedic line at the 2004 radio and television correspondents' dinner when he showed a photo montage of himself searching for weapons of mass destruction in his office at a time when U.S. troops were unable to find WMDs in Iraq.

And some conservatives railed against first lady Laura Bush's skit at the 2005 White House correspondents' dinner two years ago when she said she's up watching "Desperate Housewives" while her husband—"Mr. Excitement"—was asleep by 9 p.m.

It's hard to be funny, according to comedian-director David Steinberg—and it's even harder in Washington, D.C.

"It's always been a weird audience," said Steinberg, host of TV Land's "Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg." "It takes itself too seriously. They don't realize that the comedian won't hurt them."

Scully is confident that Little has what it takes to wow Saturday's audience, despite questions about whether his act is passe.

"I saw him on the David Letterman show and he was pretty darn funny," he said. "I know he's 68 years old, but he still has game."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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