Take this campaign roast -- please


WASHINGTON -- When you get right down to it there is nothing funny about being a Democrat. And some of their presidential candidates proved it the other night.

The idea was that the Democratic contenders would get together in a Hollywood-style roast and show everyone their warm and human side.

Speaking for everyone, I'd like to say we are still looking for it.

Two of the candidates did not bother to show up or even to send representatives. And they were the predictable ones: Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown.

Both of them would be extremely leery of being seen laughing in public.

Kerrey probably thought something like: "Is it right to be telling jokes while people are being shot in Somalia?"

And Brown probably thought something like: "Is it right to be telling jokes while people are being shot on Pluto?"

The Democrats decided to hold their roast in a swank Washington hotel and also decided it should be a black-tie event.

Trouble is, few Democrats seem to look really comfortable in tuxedos. They look like they are worried about spilling something on them and having to argue with the rental guy when they bring them back.

The Democratic women had much less trouble looking elegant. There were lots of clingy dresses and lots of sequins and lots of exposed flesh front and back.

One Democratic woman who was dressed demurely, however, was Hillary Clinton, wife of presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Bill was not at the roast, having decided to spend the evening in Arkansas with his 11-year-old daughter.

Which may be the smartest choice of female companions he has made in the last few years.

All eyes were on Hillary, who was supposed to deliver the jokes for Bill. She wore a simple but elegant black dress and her blond hair was pulled back and held in place by a black, velvet headband. She looked like a clean-scrubbed, fresh-faced Midwestern cheerleader.

Which led to the inevitable (and correct) observation that she is far better looking than Gennifer Flowers, the woman who says she had a 12-year love affair with Bill.

Everyone waited first to see what the other roasters would say about Clinton and then what Hillary would say.

Before the banquet began, there was a VIP reception in which TV and radio talk show host Larry King was about the only real VIP to show up.

King was the master of ceremonies for the event and I asked him if he intended to be funny.

"I've got to be," he said, "because the candidates sure as hell aren't going to be."

And are you going to joke about Bill Clinton's alleged affairs? I asked. With Mrs. Clinton sitting right there?

"Sure," he said.

Really? I said.

"Hey," King said, "it's not cancer."

True to his word, King (who looks like he was born in a tux, by the way) came up with: "It's 10 o'clock, Hillary, do you know where Bill Clinton is?"

And when people gasped and groaned at that, King said, "Hey, folks, it's a roast."

A professional comic, Rob Schneider from "Saturday Night Live," was trotted out and he followed with: "Tom Harkin is trying to get anyone to admit they slept with him."

Then he made a joke about how Clinton had referred to Mario Cuomo as a Mafioso. "And Clinton woke up this morning with a horse's head in his bed!" Schneider said.

But then, the real funsters took the stage, the presidential candidates, themselves.

Tom Harkin decided he would go for a double sex joke: "After the Star came out last week, Chuck Robb started screaming: "I've never even been to Arkansas!' "

Sitting in the audience, Robb, Democratic senator from Virginia, who has had to fight off rumors about his own alleged affairs, pretended to laugh heartily at this.

"We can all feel what Bill Clinton has gone through," Harkin said. "Since he was a teen-ager, he has been playing with his sax and living in fear of a typographical error."

When this was met with stunned silence, Harkin said: "You have to think about that one for a moment."

No, you don't.

Paul Tsongas came out and beat up Larry King for not putting him on his show. "Larry, you son of a bitch . . ." Tsongas began. And then he got mean.

"It's a pleasure to look out at you and see this party and remember why I left Washington," Tsongas said. "And I'm not joking."

Hillary Clinton then took the stage as the band, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, played "Turkey in the Straw."

"After the week I've had, I don't want to roast anybody," she said. "I did not understand what Bill meant when he said his big problem was how to escape obscurity. Well, he figured it out."

She did make a few other jokes: "There were rumors this week that Jerry Brown did have a date in the 1980s."

And: "Tom Harkin and Bill Clinton have a lot in common -- their wives support them emotionally and financially."

Then, she grew serious.

"This presidential campaign," she said, "if it is about anything, is about hope."

Good. Because it sure isn't about jokes.

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