WASHINGTON -- One hundred and thirty-two years ago, a handful of male Washington journalists got together and formed the Gridiron Club. It was to be a small group of writers who would sing, dance, and write songs and lyrics they thought were hilariously funny about people in power. It has been a highly successful venture, and the American presidents who almost always attended the club's annual dinner just loved us reporters.
After one dinner, for instance, President Grover Cleveland commented on "the silly, mean and cowardly lies that every day are found in the columns of certain newspapers, which violate every instinct of American manliness, and in ghoulish glee desecrate every sacred relation in private life."
Well, we'll put him aside for a moment (he probably had a stomachache!) and focus on some nicer presidents. Ike loved the Gridiron so much that he came every year he was president, and the year the war ended, in 1945, he hugged Adm. Chester Nimitz, also seated at the head table. Nancy Reagan was a huge hit when she came gussied up in funny clothes and sang "Second Hand Rose," spoofing her borrowing of designer clothes for White House functions. And in 1958, Jack Kennedy made his famous remark about his father telling his son that he wouldn't "buy a single vote more (for him in Chicago) than is necessary."
Ah, but I wander. What happened at this year's Gridiron? The dinner, show and speeches were Saturday, March 4, at the Renaissance Washington Hotel and, as you might already have guessed, it was a singularly difficult year to roast the new administration.
Above all, the Gridiron show is a parody of what is happening in Washington. It is a satire, a burlesque, a lampoon. The songs and speeches are cleverly worded in ways to send up our leaders. But this year, the administration is a parody of itself. That same weekend, President Donald Trump either got up at 5:30 a.m. or hadn't gone to bed yet and tweeted that outgoing President Barack Obama had tapped his phones. (I tell you, that's so far out, nobody in the club thought of it, even as a joke!)
But I can vouchsafe for you, as a woman member since 1990, that the club did itself proud this year. Most of the members tend toward liberal, right? Right! But the show was fair-minded (thus the sometimes hidden meaning of the symbolic Gridiron, which club lore says "singes but never burns.")
Actually, I was a little nervous before the show started. There was an air of tension in the room, despite the beautiful tradition of white-tie-and-tails and formal dresses. For fully half an hour, the 600-plus members and guests would not sit down. Just not!
But once Vice President Mike Pence took his place at the head table (the president, not surprisingly, refused to come), everyone settled down and the jokes, careful this year, began to break the dangerously icy mood.
Someone in the show thanked the Russian ambassador for "wearing two hats -- that of ambassador and as chairman of the Trump Re-election Committee."
Nancy Pelosi spoke hilariously for the Democrats, posing the question to Pence: "Does your president know you're here, laughing with the enemies of the people? That's OK. We can keep a secret ... not like the White House." And, another: "This administration has appointed so many from Goldman Sachs, there's nobody left to listen to Hillary's speeches."
The hit of the show was undoubtedly Hedrick Smith, long-time brilliant foreign correspondent and Russia specialist, who dressed, danced and sang in excellent Russian, noting that his "translation is by our Russian intelligence and security service." At the same time, blue Twitter symbols danced up and down the stage, with the words "SAD," "SO SAD" and "SUPER SAD," and the ballroom broke up!
At one point in the chock-full evening, a longtime journalist repeated the idea of a friend (not in attendance) that the Gridiron Club would be better off giving the money the evening costs for journalistic scholarships. I could not disagree more!
First, we do fund scholarships. The full name of the club is the Gridiron Club and Foundation. Second, what this nation needs more than anything else at this troubled moment in our history is events like this -- good humor, song and dance that doesn't "burn" and institutions that bring us together. Unity! Understanding! Professions whose members truly prize one another, even or especially across political lines and philosophical divisions.
At the end, before the "one toast," which is always a champagne toast to the president, the vice president grew serious and said, "President Trump and I support the freedom of the press. But these days in the news cycles, news stories often drive the news without respect for the people involved -- and we can do better."
Most in the audience Saturday probably did not believe he meant it. Still, it was good that he said it -- and we won't let him forget it, either.