A golden age for D.C. hu­mor

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JOSEPH DAL­TON

When the Republican ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed the Amer­i­can Health Care Act this month, there was a smat­ter­ing of ap­plause as well as some cheer­ing on the House floor fol­lowed by some spon­ta­neous singing. Sur­pris­ingly, the voices raised in song came from Democrats, who taunted their op­po­nents with a cou­ple of re­frains of the late-1960s lyrics “Na na na na, Na na na na, Hey hey hey, Good­bye.”

The mes­sage: “Your ca­reers are over.” As a pre­dic­tion, that seems rather pre­ma­ture, given that the midterm elec­tions are 18 months away. But the singing was a light­hearted way to com­mu­ni­cate a mes­sage.

Wash­ing­ton would ben­e­fit from more of such play­ful an­tics. Our pres­i­dent re­cently broke with decades of tra­di­tion and skipped the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ As­so­ci­a­tion Din­ner, the sea­sonal high point of po­lit­i­cal rib­bing and ribald jokes.

To­day’s cli­mate may seem harsh, but there have been pe­ri­ods when comity and good hu­mor were part of Wash­ing­ton life.

One feast of mer­ci­less barbs was the “stunt party” of the Women’s Na­tional Press Club, an an­nual tra­di­tion that be­gan in 1928. It was a lengthy the­atri­cal un­der­tak­ing that spoofed events and per­son­al­i­ties of the day. Sev­eral hun­dred fe­male jour­nal­ists, elected of­fi­cials and wives of dig­ni­taries came from around the coun­try for what grew into a weekend of fes­tiv­i­ties. The party it­self, usu­ally held at the Statler Ho­tel, was more than short satir­i­cal skits or a recital of one-lin­ers. There was singing, danc­ing and cos­tumes, with ev­ery­thing writ­ten and per­formed by club mem­bers.

A fre­quent pres­ence in star­ring roles was Hope Rid­ings Miller, The Post’s so­ci­ety ed­i­tor from 1937 to 1944. Miller, blond and pe­tite, longed to be­come a pro­fes­sional ac­tress. Dur­ing her year of grad­u­ate stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity, she also took act­ing classes at the Lucy Fagan school in Green­wich Vil­lage. Writ­ing won out as Miller’s cho­sen field, and Wash­ing­ton be­came the grand stage for her long life, which ended in 2005 at age 99. Thanks to the WNPC’s stunt shows, she had reg­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties to per­form in the spot­light.

Miller made her stunt party de­but in 1938 play­ing Miss Lotta Busi­ness, op­po­site “Franklin DeLayno,” por­trayed by Es­ther Van Wagoner Tufty. Lotta com­plains to Franklin, “You haven’t left me any­thing to sit around on! Ev­ery­where I look there’s noth­ing but tax, tax, tax!” Later she ex­claims, “He pinched me on my undis­tributed prof­its!”

Six scenes fol­lowed, in­clud­ing a “Boy­cott Bal­let” and a seg­ment that takes place in a beauty par­lor, as a sendup of “The Women,” Clare Boothe Luce’s com­edy of man­ners. The seg­ment also poked fun at first lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt, who had re­cently ap­peared at her weekly news con­fer­ence wear­ing lip­stick and “a hint of rouge,” as Miller de­scribed it in a col­umn.

“We took our play­act­ing very se­ri­ously and would ag­o­nize to pro­duce amuse­ment and wit,” said Olive Clap­per, wife of Post po­lit­i­cal writer Ray­mond Clap­per.

As the years went by, the club al­lowed men to at­tend the par­ties. That seemed only fair, given that men were be­ing sat­i­rized.

Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man and first lady Bess Tru­man at­tended the spring 1949 party, in which one of the big skits fo­cused on the first daugh­ter. Miller played Mar­garet Tru­man, then 25, an as­pir­ing singer and the most el­i­gi­ble woman in town. She was pestered by colum­nists des­per­ate to cover a White House wed­ding and hounded by bach­e­lors ea­ger for her hand. A pho­to­graph from that night shows Mar­garet/Hope perched on a stool, wear­ing a full-skirted, ivory-col­ored dress and glow­ing be­at­if­i­cally as she com­pletely ig­nores a quar­tet of ea­ger suit­ors, played by women in top hats and tails.

Chuck­ling along with the crowd, the pres­i­dent showed he was no stick in the mud, even though his ad­min­is­tra­tion and his only daugh­ter were be­ing mer­ci­lessly lam­pooned.

Just one year later, Tru­man was a thin­ner-skinned pres­i­dent and fa­ther when he sent a poi­son­pen let­ter to The Post’s mu­sic critic Paul Hume for his harsh re­view of Mar­garet’s singing.

The stunt par­ties faded away dur­ing the early 1960s. The Women’s Na­tional Press Club voted to al­low men in 1970 and be­came the Wash­ing­ton Press Club.

Hol­ly­wood gos­sip colum­nist Hedda Hop­per showed up for a stunt party in the mid-1940s. She wrote, “The most cre­ative women in our na­tional cap­i­tal can and do ridicule each other pub­licly, all in a spirit of good clean fun, with­out any ill-feel­ing, so that all can see, hear and gasp.”

If only Wash­ing­ton of to­day could re­cap­ture that spirit.

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