Some of his closest allies braced for the worst as Rep. Steny H. Hoyer strode to the podium at Washington's annual Gridiron dinner Saturday night.
Suffice it to say that, at least by reputation, Hoyer's oratorical skills seemed more apropos for a legislative debate than a stand-up routine in front of President Bush, Washington's top politicians and journalists. A few years back, he had taken on a similar gig and bombed.
But after unleashing an impressive barrage of one-liners that wowed what can be a pretty tough crowd, all that may be changed. Indeed, among many who attended, there was but one consensus: He aced it.
"He did Maryland proud, he did the Democrats proud," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who, like a number of others, was pleasantly surprised at the satire Hoyer dished out at the 123rd annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, a Washington-based journalism group that counts many fourth estate heavyweights among its members.
"The reaction was just incredible. ... He made good points on behalf of Democrats and [poked] some personal fun at himself. He was really the highlight of the evening, and it was a great evening."
The House majority leader and Southern Maryland Democrat had little more than 24 hours notice to prepare after New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel was hospitalized and had to cancel.
Gridiron veteran Al Hunt, a writer and editor for Bloomberg News, called a reluctant Hoyer Thursday night while he was ironing out a compromise with the Senate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, President Bush's terrorist wiretapping program.
"I said I wouldn't have any time to work on it, but he begged me," said Hoyer yesterday from his home. "So we scurried around on Friday to try to put something together that made some sense."
He and his staff teamed up with a few writers who had done well by Illinois Democrat Rep. Rahm Emanuel at a previous comedic engagement.
The jokes at the white-tie affair aim to singe rather than burn their subjects but sometimes push the envelope.
Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Hoyer's Republican counterpart, followed him in addressing the crowd Saturday night. She predicted a great year for the GOP, since they "started outreach many, many months ago, in the airport men's room."
The dig was a less-than-subtle reference to allegations that Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig made a pass at a man in the Minneapolis airport.
Hoyer knew he had his work cut out for him, he said. When it came time, he felt a little nervous. The jokes were good, "but the issue, of course, is whether you deliver well."
Everyone was aware he had been handicapped by a lack of preparation, so expectations were a little lower. President Bush, on the other hand, had gone through three rehearsals with backup singers who helped him sing "Brown, Brown Grass of Home," a variation of an old hit by Tom Jones.
In his speech, Hoyer said he felt like a pinch hitter in baseball, but joked that if he hit a home run, California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, scourge of steroids users in sports, would bring him in for a hearing on suspicion of juicing.
"I'm Dick Gephardt without the charisma," he said, comparing himself unfavorably with a predecessor as House Democratic leader, whose presidential candidacy was hampered by a less-than-electric personality.
"If things don't go well tonight," he added, "don't blame me, blame the author of my speech, Deval Patrick." That zinger, which poked fun at accusations that Sen. Barack Obama had lifted portions of a speech given by Patrick, the Massachusetts governor, had been made earlier in the night. But it went over well nonetheless.
Hoyer closed with a riff on another refrain that has penetrated the presidential campaign: the 3 a.m. phone call bringing bad news of a terrorist attack or worse.
"It's 3 a.m., there's a phone ringing in the White House," he said. "There's a world crisis. But nobody can answer it, cause they are stuck at the Gridiron dinner."
Chuckling about his performance last night, Hoyer said that was his favorite line.
The rest of the material, which won him rousing applause, had come together just before the dinner, he said, adding:
"Sometimes, it just clicks."
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.