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Leno, Obama jockey for laughs at press dinner

President Barack Obama poked fun at Jay Leno, the comedian headlining the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, and also made fun of former rival John McCain.
Image: U.S. President Obama and Leno smile as they help Michelle Obama with her chair at White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington
President Barack Obama and comedian Jay Leno help first lady Michelle Obama with her chair at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington on Saturday.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama poked fun at Jay Leno, the comedian headlining the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, and at former rival John McCain.

Obama dinged Leno as "the only person whose ratings fell more than mine." Obama also said he was glad he was appearing before Leno.

Obama told the 3,000-strong mix of celebrities, elected officials, political appointees and journalists that "we've all seen what happens when you take the time slot after Leno." Comic Conan O'Brien left NBC after his stint hosting the Tonight Show following Leno didn't work out.

The president also noted Sen. McCain's claim this year that he was not identified as a maverick.

Obama quipped "we know what happens in Arizona when you don't have an ID. ... Adios amigos." The president's reference to McCain's home state of Arizona referred to the new immigration law that local and state law enforcement to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally.

McCain faces a tough re-election fight against a conservative opponent and has distanced himself from the maverick label he once embraced as a presidential candidate.

Low-key speech
Obama gave a relatively low-key speech and acknowledged the problems facing the Gulf coast after the disastrous BP oil spill.

Early in his talk, Obama said that he debated whether he should appear at the dinner at all because he's been very busy. Obama was planning to go to the Gulf Coast Sunday for a firsthand assessment on efforts to contain the massive oil spill from an offshore drilling rig.

Among the 3,000 guests on hand included Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, comedian Chevy Chase, actor Alec Baldwin, comedian Bill Maher, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, actor Dennis Quaid, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, GOP Chairman Michael Steele, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, White House senior adviser David Axelrod, the Jonas brothers and another teen heartthrob, pop star Justin Bieber.

Hollywood heavyweights Michel Douglas, Steven Spielberg were seen chatting with White House aide Rahm Emmanuel.

Party crashers were not welcome. After Tareq and Michaele Salahi got through White House gates without invitations to a state dinner, guests had to bring a dinner ticket or printed invitation to attend dinner pre-parties at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Organizers said they were trying to cut down on crowds.

But the glitzy event has grown to become much more than the $225-per-ticket dinner. Celebrities, political elite and journalists were also expected to flood several after-parties that can have red carpets of their own, said Sarah Schaffer of Capitol File Magazine, a host to one of the parties.

Honoring students, journalists
At the dinner, the White House Correspondents' Association introduces students from Washington who will receive college scholarships.

To be honored at the dinner are several journalists:

  • Ben Feller of The Associated Press and Jake Tapper of ABC News, for winning the Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage under deadline pressure. Feller won for his coverage of Obama's unexpected late-night visit to Dover Air Force Base to honor fallen soldiers. Tapper won for his story that revealed tax problems of former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
  • Mark Knoller, of CBS News, for winning the Aldo Beckman award for sustained excellence in White House coverage. Knoller won for his work covering the White House for more than 35 years and in using multiple platforms to report.
  • Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman, of the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, for winning the Edgar A. Poe Award for excellence in coverage of news of national or regional significance. They were cited for a four-part series entitled, "Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters."

The White House Correspondents' Association was formed in 1914 as a liaison between the press and the president. Every president since Calvin Coolidge has attended the dinner.