WASHINGTON - First lady Laura Bush's show-stealing debut as a comedienne at Saturday night's annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner had the audience hooting with laughter.
I was right there with them, grateful for the humor and appreciative as ever for Mrs. Bush's humanizing effect on the presidency and our nation. But beyond the jokes, my personal mirth was closely tied to another punch line - the one nobody said but that I kept thinking as she delivered one-liners:
Good thing she ain't in Saudi Arabia.
Or the Taliban's Afghanistan. Or prewar Iraq. Or northern Nigeria today. Or any number of Islamic theocracies where women who disobey their husbands - or walk down the street uncovered or unaccompanied by a male family member - are flogged, beheaded or stoned to death, depending on the whims of the ruling fathers.
Laura Bush, who declared herself a "desperate housewife," who said she recently went to a Chippendales male striptease show, who made fun of her husband's early bedtime and compared her mother-in-law to Don Corleone, would not have lasted long among some of our friends and foes in foreign lands. Yet here, she was free to drop bunker busters on her husband's dinner plate to laughter and applause.
President George W. Bush was, of course, part of the staged interruption in which Mrs. Bush cut him off midway through a joke and commandeered the podium, but he didn't know what she was going to say. No one laughed harder than he when his wife described them as opposites: "I'm quiet, he's talkative; I'm introverted, he's extroverted; I can pronounce 'nuclear.' ."
Or when she described the Bush-family getaway in Kennebunkport, Maine, as like Crawford, Texas, but without the nightlife. "People ask me what it's like to be up there with the whole Bush clan. Let me put it this way: First prize - three-day vacation with the Bush family. Second prize - 10 days."
Or when she noted that Bush the Rancher was a relatively new incarnation given that his alma maters, Andover and Yale, weren't known for their strong ranching programs. "He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse. What's worse, it was a male horse."
Mrs. Bush also managed to poke fun at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, (Bush adviser) Karen Hughes and Lynne Cheney, who she said accompanied her to a Chippendales performance, as well as the female Supreme Court justices. "I wouldn't even mention it except Ruth Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor saw us there."
Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a turn as well. Noting her husband's penchant for taking a chainsaw to any problem on the ranch, she said that's why "he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well."
Not to be excessively grateful for small favors, or to overstate the privilege of free speech - which inarguably should be anyone's birthright regardless of race, gender, creed or beverage of choice. But it is a privilege unrealized in much of the world, especially for women, and one we daily take for granted. While we're sweating the small stuff, it is helpful to keep that in mind.
Americans have long enjoyed that tradition of poking fun at our leaders, in whom we require an ability to laugh at oneself. We consider self-deprecation a necessary virtue. In black tie by evening, we roast the people we've elevated either through votes or applause; in jeans and suits by day, we're back to rhetorical fencing that sometimes stops just short of a duel.
You can't beat that with a scimitar, nor can you translate it easily to those still mucking around in the 12th century. If we think it's tricky teaching recently freed peoples how to run a democratic election, try explaining how the president of the United States can laugh while his wife berates him publicly. It's simple if you've had a few centuries of European enlightenment and about 225 years midwifing democracy.
The ability to laugh at oneself ultimately is a sign of maturity, self-confidence, strength and humility. Men do that well in this country as in few others. Laura Bush's quips - even those that raised a few eyebrows - reflected well on her, as many have noted. But more to the point, they reflected well on the men we like to bash and the intact state of American manhood.
About those who would have preferred her beheaded, we reasonably might infer something else.