Stand-Up Comity, One Night Only

At the Grid­iron Din­ner, a Split­ting And Join­ing of Sides

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Lin­ton Weeks

Once again there was the usual air of palsy- wal­sy­ness be­tween politi­cians and jour­nal­ists at the an­nual Grid­iron Club din­ner Satur­day night. Th­ese anachro­nis­tic af­fairs are like fairy tales told at bed­time, where se­ri­ous news — the Iraq war, global warm­ing, per­jury — is mocked and put to mu­sic as en­ter­tain­ment.

The Grid­iron is a du­bi­ous leftover from a time when jour­nal­ists and politi­cians pum­meled each other by day and par­tied to­gether by night. We close our eyes and imag­ine the olden, pre- gotcha days be­fore tell- all tabloids, cable news chan­nels and cell­phone cam­eras. Be­fore fear of bl­o­go­sphere and YouTube ac­count­abil­ity. Be­fore O’Reilly rants and “ Hard­ball” ha­rangues and be­fore Water­gate and the Scooter Libby trial lifted the rock to show the com­plex, squirmy re­la­tion­ship be­tween pol­i­tics

and jour­nal­ism.

It’s one thing for co­me­di­ans and satirists to turn po­lit­i­cal trans­gres­sions into punch lines. It’s an­other for those of us charged with ex­pos­ing those sins to make light of them. And for peo­ple who com­mit­ted the sins to be guf­faw­ing at our jokes in the au­di­ence. How can re­porters ask the tough ques­tions — about, yes, the Iraq war, global warm­ing and per­jury — of politi­cians on Mon­day morn­ing when we’ve been yukking it up to­gether about those very same is­sues on Satur­day night?

Asked if the ap­par­ent co­zi­ness be­tween Grid­iron mem­bers and news­mak­ers both­ered him, club Pres­i­dent Bill Neikirk of the Chicago Tri­bune said: “ I don’t know why it would feel too cozy. We’re not suck­ing up to them.”

He sug­gested that per­haps the event has im­proved re­la­tions be­tween those who gov­ern and those who re­port on them. When it was sug­gested that re­la­tions hadn’t ap­peared to im­prove since 1885, when the club was founded, he said, “ Per­haps the Grid­iron is not the grand force we think it is, but we just con­tinue to go on.”

He added: “ It’s a grand Wash­ing­ton tra­di­tion.”

Sure enough at the Re­nais­sance Wash­ing­ton Ho­tel last night, mem­bers of the Grid­iron Club, gath­ered for the white- tie event to laugh at the world and them­selves. It was 1954 all over again.

The pres­i­dent, who usu­ally at­tends, was host­ing Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva at Camp David. Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney and his wife, Lynne, showed up as White House rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The other in­vi­tees in­cluded var­i­ous Cabi­net mem­bers, Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, mem­bers of Congress, gov­er­nors and May­ors Adrian Fenty of Wash­ing­ton and Michael Bloomberg of New York.

Some of the more sur­real mo­ments from the show’s li­bretto and sched­uled to be per­formed last night: K Colum­nist Robert No­vak in a Darth Vader cos­tume pre­tend­ing to be Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney singing “ It’s Not Easy Be­ing Mean.” He war­bled, “ If Scooter lied to make us free, it could make you won­der why.” K Susan Page of USA To­day, par­tic­i­pat­ing as a mem­ber of the “ bleedin’ lib’ral Press Corps Band,” singing, “ We swear by Scooter Libby we / Will burn a source with­out re­morse / We love to burn a source.” K Two pro­fes­sional singers, im­ported by the Grid­iron Club, pre­tend­ing to be Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice and for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld. Arm in arm they prof­fered a re­vi­sion­ist ver­sion of “ I Re­mem­ber It Well” from “ Gigi.” In the song, Rums­feld re­mem­bers Iraqis wel­com­ing U. S. troops “ with open arms.” Rice re­minds him, “ They opened fire! They set off bombs!” An obliv­i­ous Rums­feld re­sponds, “ Oh, right, I re­mem­ber it well.”

Other song par­o­dies in­cluded a paean to Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Rahm Emanuel — “ O Rahm! O Rahm! Emanuel,” sung to the tune of the Christ­mas carol “ O Come, O Come Emmanuel” — and a gal­lows- hu­mor diddy by for­mer New York Times re­porter Hedrick Smith as Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad and He­len Thomas of Hearst News­pa­pers as Kim Jong Il about Sad­dam Hus­sein’s feet “ in the air.”

The whole cast ap­peared on­stage for a rous­ing ren­di­tion of “ Sum­mer in the City,” pok­ing fun at global warm­ing. “ Po­lar bears are on thin ice / And pen­guins march in place — poor guys!”

Roughly 600 peo­ple, at $ 260 a plate, watched the spec­ta­cle. For years, the Grid­iron was ex­clu­sively for news­pa­per peo­ple. Pil­lars of the club in­clude David Broder of The Wash­ing­ton Post and Jack Ger­mond of the Bal­ti­more Sun. Re­cently it has been opened up to TV, ra­dio and newsweekly jour­nal­ists — “ spark­lies,” as one old- timer refers to them. Last year Tim Russert of NBC News was ad­mit­ted. New mem­bers this year in­clude Bob Schi­ef­fer of CBS News and Mara Lias­son of Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio. “ Some would say we have had an ex­pan­sion of the Grid­iron in the last five years,” mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Cragg Hines of the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle told the au­di­ence. “ We pre­fer to call it a surge.” Hi­lar­i­ous. For an­cient and inane rea­sons, the club — which is made up of work­ing jour­nal­ists — does not let jour­nal­ists work; re­porters are not al­lowed to cover the event, though the Fri­day af­ter­noon re­hearsal is open to press. The heav­ily scripted Satur­day evening is con­sid­ered to be off the record, but in­for­ma­tion does leak.

Prepa­ra­tions take months. Mem­bers draw up a list of politi­cos and news­mak­ers they would like to lure to the din­ner. Then mem­bers choose, like in a sports draft, which wonky celebs they want to ask. Re­tired Fed­eral Re­serve chair­man Alan Greenspan was in­vited last night; so was his suc­ces­sor, Ben Ber­nanke. And for­mer sec­re­tary of state Colin Pow­ell.

In his speech, Neikirk ad­dressed Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney and said he had had his re­marks ap­proved by two Wash­ing­ton hu­mor ex­perts: Demo­cratic Sens. Joe Bi­den and John Kerry.

Asked if the per­for­mance at Wed­nes­day night’s White House Ra­dio & Television Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner — in which Karl Rove got up on­stage and rapped with NBC News journo David Gre­gory and oth­ers — was a good thing, Robert No­vak said he didn’t think it was funny. “ That’s my test. If it’s funny.”

But is it funny? As hu­mor trumped skep­ti­cism once again last night, we couldn’t help won­der­ing why this cha­rade pa­rade goes on year af­ter year. Or is that skep­ti­cism we see ev­ery day at White House news con­fer­ences and nightly news in­ter­views just a stage show, and this chum­mi­ness re­al­ity?


Among the guests at last night’s Grid­iron Club din­ner were for­mer sec­re­tary of state Colin Pow­ell and wife Alma.

The Chicago Tri­bune’s Bill Neikirk is this year’s pres­i­dent of the Grid­iron Club.


The ul­ti­mate in press cozy­ing up to power: NBC’s An­drea Mitchell and her hus­band, Alan Greenspan, ar­rive at last night’s Grid­iron din­ner.

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