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Give President Clinton credit. He knows a true hero is more likely to wear a firefighter's hat or a police badge than a tuxedo.

He showed that last week at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.That event is to Washington politics what the Academy Awards are to Hollywood. Big-name journalists compete to bring the most popular actors, politicians, musicians, Supreme Court justices, ambassadors or other celebrities to the black-tie affair.

Even at $100 a person, it sells out months in advance. Organizations from the Washington Post to Vanity Fair buy several tables - and host lavish receptions before and after the event. It is on live TV - although it is cable's C-SPAN, not NBC.

Not being a fan of such glitz, I never attended one of the dinners until last week. I had to because I won an award for revealing secret Cold War tests in Utah - and the president was to present it there.

That went to my head a bit, and I thought it might be fun to try to fit in with the jet set for one night.

So I handed over $100 of the Deseret News' money for a ticket. I put on a tuxedo, went to the main pre-dinner reception and found a spot to do some serious people watching.

I looked next to me, and House Republican leader Dick Armey was doing the same. So was everyone else - all looking for actors, big diamonds, designer dresses or other signs of money or power.

In Washington, that is what draws crowds. I saw fascinating people who lack that fame or money standing alone while actors like Tom Selleck and Tony Curtis were surrounded by well-wishers. Those whose names or faces might not attract crowds tried to draw attention with opulent dress or hairstyles.

When I entered the dinner, I found a program that listed all 2,700 people attending, what their claim to fame is and where each was sitting.

To show how little fame I have, I was seated at a table so far back that it didn't even make the printed map of tables.

Also lest my ego get too big, when I was presented to the president to receive my award, the announcer said I worked for the "Desiree" News. (When I received a different award last week from The Newspaper Guild, it said I worked for the "Desert" News.)

Presidents normally use speeches at the dinner to jokingly jab at correspondents and get some revenge for the grief they inflict on him. But Clinton wasn't in the mood.

He only made one joke - aimed mostly at himself for not getting his recent press conference on national networks.

He noted that like him, Conan O'Brien, host of the "Late Show" who provided the dinner's entertainment, "rose from obscurity . . . and despite his many accomplishments, 250 million Americans never get to see him in prime time. I feel your pain."

Instead of honoring or jousting with the press and celebrities in tuxedos, Clinton decided to honor "real heroes" - the rescue workers from around the nation who helped after the Oklahoma City bombing.

He recounted stories of how they risked their own lives to try to save others - or when all hope was gone, to retrieve bodies so that grieving families could have the poor consolation of burying them.

Clinton also talked about the victims - good people who worked hard for their families and now will be missed.

I thought Clinton was right. Celebrity is fleeting. Actors lose it in a few years. Awards are soon forgotten. Coming generations couldn't care less who wore what fancy outfit at a gala dinner.

But grieving families will always honor in their hearts the rescue workers - who won't win awards or attend galas. And families will love and miss parents and children who worked hard and sacrificed for their loved ones.

While celebrity may be fun for a night, Clinton helped remind the nation that it isn't important. Family is. And working to help others as if they were family is. And that is where true worth will be measured over time.