WASHINGTON — It isn't often that the president of the United States gets upstaged. After all, being the leader of the free world is about as powerful as it gets.
But Laura Bush firmly pushed her husband aside at the annual White House Correspondents Assn. dinner Saturday, bringing down the house with impeccable comedic timing and a deadpan delivery that put professional comedians -- like the evening's headliner, Cedric the Entertainer -- to shame.
Before her husband's reelection in November, she appeared content in the traditional role of the first lady, smiling a lot and saying little.
But now that the election is over, and given that her approval rating is more than 30 points higher than her husband's, the administration is putting Laura Bush front and center on the public stage -- heading an initiative to keep at-risk children from involvement with gangs and drugs, traveling to Afghanistan to thank U.S. troops for their service and to visit with Afghan women training as teachers, even dropping by "The Tonight Show" last week for a chat with Jay Leno.
Her turn in the spotlight Saturday was not the first time a first lady had stolen the show at such an event. At the 1982 Gridiron dinner -- a similar gathering of the media and political elite -- Nancy Reagan appeared in thrift-shop couture and crooned "Second-Hand Clothes," a takeoff of her spending habits in the White House, set to the tune of "Second-Hand Rose."
Traditionally, the president addresses the White House correspondents dinner, and this was no exception. President Bush was heading into a joke about a city slicker's encounter with a cowboy -- one that he noted had bombed during a recent stop in Montana -- when he was stopped by a heckler on the dais: "Not that old joke -- not again."
With that, the first lady took charge, delivering zingers about her husband, the large Bush family and her life on the ranch near Crawford, Texas.
"George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney. He's usually in bed by now," she said to laughter. "I said to him the other day, 'George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later.' "
A typical White House evening goes like this, she went on: "Nine o'clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I'm watching 'Desperate Housewives' -- with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife."
Guffaws came from the audience of more than 2,000 journalists, politicians and show business and sports celebrities, including Richard Gere, Al Franken, Jane Fonda and the two quarterbacks of the most recent Super Bowl, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles.
She noted that she and her husband were "complete opposites -- I'm quiet, he's talkative; I'm introverted, he's extroverted; I can pronounce 'nuclear.' "
The president laughed at that one.
She discussed the family she married into, saying of Barbara Bush: "People often wonder what my mother-in-law's really like. People think she's a sweet, grandmotherly, Aunt Bea type. She's actually more like, mmm, Don Corleone."
And the native of the Lone Star State poked fun at her husband's patrician upbringing: "George didn't know much about ranches when we bought the place" near Crawford. "Andover and Yale don't have a real strong ranching program.
"But I'm proud of George. He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse." She paused. "What's worse, it was a male horse."
When she finished, the audience rose in extended -- and sincere -- applause, although one crowd member may have been a bit miffed by her success.
"I thought I could follow the president," Cedric the Entertainer told the crowd. "But the first lady -- that's something different."