WASHINGTON (AP) – Twenty-three years ago, impersonator Rich Little stepped to the podium at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner after President Reagan told him: “Now Rich, if you do well, we’ll have you back.”

It took more than two decades, but Little has finally returned.

Best known for his impersonations of Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson, Rich was the featured comedian Saturday night for the glitzy dinner with President Bush, Cabinet secretaries, foreign dignitaries, Hollywood celebrities and members of the press.

Little said both Republicans and Democrats should watch out for gentle jokes at their expense during the correspondents’ dinner, an annual tradition started by President Calvin Coolidge.

“I’ll do a few jokes on the Democrats, a few jokes on the Republicans,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m probably not quite as controversial as certain comedians like (Stephen) Colbert.”

Last year, Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” lampooned the administration and the Washington press corps as President Bush looked on unamused amid a crowd’s laughter that was nervous at times.

“With Bush, I’m going to be doing nothing that tough, mostly the fact that he can’t talk sometimes, he gets all tangled up,” Little said. “The sillier the better.”

Colbert was a hit with the general public – a YouTube video of his performance last year was viewed 2.7 million times in less than 48 hours – and liberal bloggers have expressed anger over the decision to have such an innocuous entertainer.

“It’s almost worse than putting up (conservative comedian) Dennis Miller or someone, because at least that would start a debate … rather than someone who’s just so bland,” said Jonathan Singer, a blogger at the liberal MyDD.com.

Expected to join People Magazine was Sanjaya Malakar, the “American Idol” finalist who became famous for his hair despite singing that got mixed reviews. He was voted off the show Tuesday night.

Celebrities on the correspondents’ dinner guest list included country stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, singer Sheryl Crow, actor John Cusack, actress Mary Tyler Moore and comic Larry David.

The expected Washington heavyweights included Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and CIA director Michael Hayden. Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has faced down calls for his resignation this week from fellow Republicans, was also expected, as was Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader who has been dogged by money laundering charges.

The association presented a $5,000 check to the Virginia Tech student paper to help its coverage in the aftermath of the massacre there last Monday.

“It meant a lot to the whole student body,” said Amie Steel, editor of the Collegiate Times.

Half the crowd chanted “Let’s Go” and the other half changed “Hokies.” Then they joined in a standing ovation.

The association also was presenting its top reporting awards, announced earlier this month:

-David Sanger of the New York Times and Martha Raddatz of ABC News, the Merriman Smith Award, the top journalism award for White House reporting under deadline pressure.

Sanger was recognized for his report on North Korea’s nuclear test. Raddatz won for her coverage of the death of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

-Kenneth Walsh of U.S. News and World Report, the Aldo Beckman award for an in-depth look at Vice President Dick Cheney’s place in the administration. The award is given for repeated excellence in White House reporting.

-Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Edgar A. Poe Award for a series on Iraq war veterans with missing limbs. The Poe award recognizes excellence in news of national and regional importance.

The association was established in 1914 as a bridge between the press corps and the White House. The current president is Steve Scully of C-SPAN.

AP-ES-04-21-07 2056EDT

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