Politicians take themselves less seriously at Gridiron Club

— President Bush and Sen. Tom Daschle, potential rivals in 2004, smothered each other in satire at the 117th Gridiron dinner as the capital's political elite lapped up a laugh-packed respite from war.

After musical skits mined humor from a harrowing year of terrorism, anthrax, corporate bankruptcy and war, Bush closed the show Saturday night with a lighthearted jab at Daschle's presidential aspirations.

"What are you going to run on, Tom?" Bush asked the Democrat from South Dakota, suggesting that he intends to co-opt Daschle's issues for re-election.

"Patients Bill of Rights? I'm for it."

"Enron? I'm against it."

"Campaign reform? I'll sign it."

"Child care, Tom? I'm going to expand child care to those who don't even have children," Bush said as laughter filled the hotel ballroom. "Medicare, Tom? Under my plan, you don't have to be sick."

Earlier, Daschle suggested that Bush's high wartime approval ratings may be fleeting.

"Nobody's approval ratings have been as high as President Bush's since ... his father's," Daschle said with a grin. Former President Bush lost re-election after winning the popular Persian Gulf War.

Daschle drew the loudest laugh when he mocked his own reputation as a senator willing to do anything to block Bush's legislative agenda.

"Hi, my name's Tom. I'm an obstructionist," Daschle said to open his address.

He said Bush once asked him to pass the salt, and he couldn't do it. "I can't bring myself to pass anything," the senator said.

The night's scene-stealer was Vice President Dick Cheney, who sneaked on stage with his wife, Lynne, to dance to a musical spoof of his hideaway habit; Cheney slips in and out of secure, undisclosed locations to protect the continuity of government in case of a terrorist attack.

As the Gridiron players belted out their lyrics ("There is a dark, secluded place. A veep can sleep, without a trace. And no one ever see his face � Dick Cheney's hideaway!"), the vice president doffed his top hat and his wife clasped the stem of a rose in her teeth.

After a few well-practiced steps, the vice president ended with a big leg kick, and Mrs. Cheney tossed the rose high into the audience.

Bush's zingers hit several targets, including:

l Cheney, whose absences might be "causing marital strain, if you know what I mean." Bush said with a smirk. He claimed to have asked Lynne if the separations were a problem, and she replied: "He's gone?"

l Secretary of State Colin Powell, who angered conservatives during a recent MTV appearance by urging condom use. Bush noted that former President Clinton, appearing on the same music network, discussed his underwear. "Colin, of course, recommended wearing something else."

l His own reputation for being a hands-off administrator. "Life has sure changed" since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. "A year ago Dick Cheney was running the country. Today, he lives out of a little suitcase."

As is tradition, each speaker ended on a serious note.

Whitman said Bush is truly an environmentalist. Daschle praised Bush for "strong and steadfast" leadership in war. The president paid tribute to soldiers slain in Afghanistan, as well as to Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan.

Pearl's wife, Mariane, is pregnant. Bush asked journalists to write the soon-to-be-born son about his father and said he would do the same.

"May God bless Daniel Pearl and Mariane Pearl and her boy," Bush said. "And may the world he enters into be more peaceful than the one his father just left."


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