Georgie Anne Geyer

Tradition Reigns at the Gridiron Dinner

WASHINGTON -- It was THAT weekend again! We have just finished off one more dinner and show full of hilarity, courtesy of the 127-year-old Gridiron Club and Foundation. Or perhaps IT has finished us off. That's an argument that can go two ways at least.

So as not to be confused with football dinners, I first want to make clear that what is familiarly known in Washington as "The Gridiron" is a very elegant dinner, now held at the Renaissance Hotel downtown, broken up by hilarious skits that are parodies of the city's politics over the last year, by short periods of mingling so intense that no one can hear -- or remember -- a single word, and by speeches by "big shots" representing the Republicans, the Democrats and the White House.

The club has a mere 65 regular working members and they write, produce and act in everything. We have a remarkable professional orchestra (paid by the club) and a handful of "ringers," or semi-pro singers, who are superb and are associate members of the club. Usually presidents come and speak very well, offering hilarious views of the world they inherited.

Nancy Reagan won hearts left and right when she appeared on stage in 1982. She had been criticized for borrowing (yes, only borrowing) fancy dresses from various designers' boutiques to wear at Washington functions. But this Gridiron night she performed in more raggedy gowns, singing "Second-Hand Rose." From that moment on, she was popular with the press corps.

Dick Cheney once got up on stage and danced with his wife to appropriate musical prose; the Clintons sent an immensely clever video of her playing Forrest Gump talking about the White House. When Barack Obama was a speaker before he became president, he noted that he was a little nervous that night -- after all, he was sitting only three seats away from Dick Cheney, and he had just shot a guy while hunting!

The shows are original in many ways, the first being that the members -- until recently only print journalists, but now, trying to be in tune with the times on many levels, the club permits broadcast and online journalists to join -- do all the work themselves; planning, producing, skit- and songwriting, directing and performing. And they pay for it all.

This year, no less than earlier ones, criticism is not lacking for the Gridiron, but it has taken another turn. Jim McCartney, a fine journalist who was also one of the funniest this side of Mars, recently died, and his son, Robert McCartney, who writes a local column for The Washington Post, chose this moment to write a critical column about the Gridiron, which his father had starred in and adored for its camaraderie.

It was the usual tiresome criticism, so, for simplicity's sake, I will list Robert's complaints and answer each one.

Robert: "Wake up, Gridiron. You're losing your cachet."

Answer: "But you're just putting me to sleep."

Robert: "The Gridiron dinner already risks becoming less of a draw than that of the club's rival, the White House Correspondents' Association. It's the upstart that has learned to use Hollywood celebrities ... to attract attention."

Answer: "I'm really surprised at you, Robert! The White House Correspondents' dinner does none of its own creative work for the dinner -- nothing. For the last several years, it has brought in vulgar, inane Hollywood 'comics,' who have met nearly universal disapproval. Even the president has been critical."

Robert: "(The Gridiron's) journalistic integrity is on the line. Like other galas where media and officialdom mingle, the dinner has drawn just criticism for seeming to nurture excessive coziness between journalists and the people we're supposed to hold accountable."

Answer: "Oh phoo, Robert. You know better than that. The BIG criticism of press/politician relationships in Washington today is that there essentially are none. And when people don't know one another, it's easy to write anything about them. We need just exactly this attempt at comity. One of the speakers at this Gridiron, asked why relationships between congressmen used to be so much better, answered to great applause, 'They drank together.'"

Robert: "The most important thing to change is to put the whole show on television. That would inoculate the Gridiron against the ailment that threatens it most: lack of transparency."

Answer: "Hmmmm. Probably you have a point here, Robert. I'm not certain, but I think I heard crowds of thousands outside the National Press Club before the Gridiron, shouting, 'Transparency, SI! Secret Gridiron, NO! Transparency, SI! Secret Gridiron, NO!'"

In short, I would say that the Gridiron's hilarious, costumed parody is one of the healthiest things in Washington, yesterday or today. It shaves the prickles off the soul, and you find people smiling and nodding as they walk out together.

Actually, this year we rather liked our secret lyrics, our lack of transparency in singing "Panetta" to "Pagliacci," and the tradition of having new members dance around in animal costumes, this year including Mitt Romney's dog. It would seem to me that nobody else in Washington wants to do the mammoth amount of work evident in Gridiron; it would also seem to me, Robert, that you probably should not apply for membership.

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