WASHINGTON -- Most of the stories about the Gridiron dinner last week naturally focused on how our unpredictable president behaved, particularly when surrounded by the "enemy of the people" (that is, us, the press) for four hours. The coverage also veered into questions of the excellence of his jokes about himself and his "reign," and how the "enemy" responded.
It was the 133rd annual dinner of a remarkable club that lives by the rules of living well, but courteously. And it was also a clash between tradition and Trumpism.
The Gridiron Club was formed in 1885 by a handful of fun-loving male print journalists who wanted to "promote good fellowship" between politicians and journalists by holding an annual dinner and show that made fun of just about everybody, most definitely including themselves.
But the fun must be good fun. Out of this exhortation came the club's famous motto, "The Gridiron singes, but never burns." I have sat through club meetings where members spent hours assuring that the humor in their skits did not sink below levels of good taste and good spirit. It's not always easy.
How would Donald Trump relate, if at all, to a gathering of these enemies, many of the major Washington journalists? And how would those enemies receive the man they've often cursed since the moment he came to the presidency?
You might have gotten a hint of the mood that night when President Trump stood up late in the evening and started the traditional president's remarks. "It's been another calm week at the White House," he told the crowd. Laughter. "It's running like a fine-tuned machine." Pause. "We were late because Jared couldn't get through security." More laughter.
Then he admitted, "My staff worried because they thought I couldn't do self-deprecating humor." Another pause. "I said, 'I'm the best at self-deprecating humor!'" About his attorney general, Jeff Sessions: "I offered him a ride over, but he recused himself."
In short, the president was good at making some fun of himself. He gave in to the Gridiron's insistence on white tie and tails, the last dinner to demand it, and even occasionally smiled at the marvelous song-and-dance skits put on by the 65 members, all of them journalists working in print, broadcasting or related media. He just loved the one about Hillary Clinton called "She Thinks It's Still About Her!"
As a Gridiron member for 28 years, I happened to be sitting quite close to President Trump, who was of course up on the dais, and I was perplexed by the ups and downs of his reactions. He would smile, but only occasionally, and even seem charming, but then he would suddenly turn dark.
As he did in his speech: "I like turnover. I like chaos." Pause. "Now everyone's asking who's gonna be the next to leave -- Steve Miller or Melania?" Gasps.
For her part, Melania, sitting next to him and looking very much like a beautiful but untouchable statue, not only smiled no more than twice all evening, by my count, but otherwise never changed expression or talked to the person next to her. Distinctly odd!
Every president since the club's founding, except the distinctly unhumorous Grover Cleveland, has attended and spoken at the Gridiron. It was, for instance, where Sen. John F. Kennedy, then running for president, chose to bring out the famous fake telegram from his "generous daddy" reading: "Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."
This is where our club traditions of camaraderie -- similar, I might add, to those of other member organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis and the American Legion -- come up against this White House's penchant for tearing away at the foundations of many American traditions.
Still, we can now proclaim that the two, tradition and Trumpism, met on Saturday, March 3, 2018, and treated each other respectfully and humorously -- and that is something.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, speaking for the Democrats at the dinner, went even further and reminded us with great seriousness at the end of a hilarious speech of the possibilities such meetings open to us. "As a country, we're not in such a good place," he told the assemblage. "But we have to face the fact that eventually we're gonna come back to Earth. We will begin again to find our common purpose."