Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had a second chance to make a first impression on Saturday night, speaking at the Gridiron Club annual winter dinner -- supposedly enemy territory since it is a black-tie gathering of elite mainstream Washington journalists.
The impression: Makin' nice at a dinner where some of the journalists attending shredded her.
At the reception, Palin was warm, personable and approachable, gracious to those who wanted to take her picture, and good humored about accommodating the total strangers who asked to pose with her for a souvenir snap. She wore a black suit and carried a purse made from otter fur. I know that not because I know otter when I see it, but because I asked her what the fur was and she told me. Todd Palin wore a cummerbund with his tuxedo and he told me it was modeled on the Alaskan flag, blue with the Big Dipper and Northern Star.
Her 11 minute, 30 second speech was funny, smart, loaded with zingers aimed at the reporters who have mocked her. On a snowy Washington night, Palin inflicted on herself the kind of self-deprecatory humor that is standard at these events.
Now do you remember her first interview after John McCain surprised everyone and tapped her to be his vice presidential nominee in 2008? A few days later she told ABC's Charlie Gibson, "you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." She riffed off her Russia line -- which made her seem goofy and shallow -- at the start of her shtick. She lampooned stories about her extravagant campaign wardrobe, Katie Couric's what-newspapers-do-you-read question and the barbs she has traded with unnamed McCain staffers.
"Great to be here in Washington. Lovin' the weather, feel right at home. . . . From my hotel room, from there I can see the Russian Embassy, right there." She said earlier she had gone out for a jog, "or as Newsweek calls it, a cover shoot," a reference to Newsweek using a picture taken for a runner's magazine for the cover of a story about her political prospects.
Palin was there not only with her husband but her parents, too. She was paired as speaker with the Democratic liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who attended with his partner. Palin is on a nationwide book tour for her memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life."
Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, just published a biography titled "Barney Frank: The Story of America's Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman."
Palin reached across the aisle for help crafting the speech, enlisting Eric Schnure, a former speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore. Schnure worked in the Clinton White House from 1993 and 1997 and is a specialist in political humor.
Palin -- who earlier Saturday appeared at a bookstore in suburban Virginia -- joked that she actually had some other titles in mind for her book. "Somebody suggested that I go with 'How to Look Like a Million Bucks for Only $150,000.' Todd liked 'The Audacity of North Slope.' I considered not having a title at all. I said it before, but some of the 'Beltway Boys' just don't get it. That you don't need a title to make an impact."
I took that line as a shot at critics who said she should not have quit as Alaska governor -- that it would mess up her credentials as a serious person.
She also riffed on her Sedona, Ariz., meeting with McCain, where he offered her the vice presidency; she has McCain saying, "You betcha."
"You betcha. Who talks that way? Sometimes you just got to trust your instincts. And when you don't, you end up in places like this. . . . Palin' around with this group. At least now I can put a face to all the newspapers that I do read. It's good to be here, though, really, in front of this audience of leading journalists and intellectuals, or as I like to call it, a death panel."
As for the book tour -- she travels at times on a bus -- "I have to say, the view is so much better from inside the bus than under it."
There's no index in the book, so no one can do what is called the "Washington read," flipping to the end to see if you are mentioned.
"Still, though, I want to do something very special for this audience. It is the Washington elite. It is. We've talked about this earlier. This is the cream of the crop, right? This is the Washington elite. And I want to read from that index, then, which I chose not to include in hardback. So under A, we have Alaska, media not understanding, pages 1 through 432. Under B. Biased media; pages 1 though 432. And under C, conservative media, got to see acknowledgments for that."
Without using his name, she slammed Steve Schmidt, the shaved-head McCain campaign manager. "Normally the Democrat speaker would deliver a speech after me. But instead, I hear the McCain campaign staff asked if they could use that time for a rebuttal. . . . Suffice it to say, that if ever I need a bald campaign manager, it appears all that I am left with is James Carville."
Now the next joke -- a variation of the famous Abbott and Costello "who's on first" classic; to get it, you have to know the president of China is Hu Jintao.
"I'm on the flight here, thumbing through a magazine looking at a picture of President Obama and the president of China. And they were together. The person next to me looks over my shoulder, he looks at the picture, he points to it and he says, Hu's a communist? I thought he was asking a question."
Palin then turned her attention to Vice President Biden. "I can't help think of what might have been. I can be the vice president overseeing the signing of bailout checks and Joe Biden could be on the road selling his new book, 'Going Rogaine.' "
Frank was funny too and a good sport, because he had to know the larger-than-usual audience, about 195, was there for Palin.
The Gridiron members lampooned Franks' tenure at the House Financial Services Committee in a song to the tune of "We Three Kings."
Frank retorted, "I'm very flattered to be the second Jew to have that tune dedicated to."
Then this: "Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay became a TV reality star, "Dancing With the Stars," and I thought maybe there was going to be a whole series of TV shows starring Republicans in that regard, and I thought one we might see was the story of a couple that starts out deeply committed to each other but has a disagreement. It would be called 'John and Sarah, Minus 8 Percent.' "
The name of his reality show? "King of Queens."