Is it possible he’s beginning to like these dinners? President Obama — who dismayed the Beltway elite by shunning most of this town’s stuffed-shirt banquets during his first term — dutifully suited up in white tie and lobbed jokes at the annual Gridiron Club dinner Saturday night.
“Of course, as I begin my second term, our country is still facing enormous challenges,” the president told the gathering — and then paused for a long sip of water.
“That, Marco Rubio, is how you take a sip of water.”
So goes the formula for humor for Gridiron Club dinner humor: Jokes so geared to political insiders they’d flop on “Letterman” and so of-the-moment they’ll make no sense to us a year from now. But when delivered to a closed-door gathering of top-of-the-pack journalists by the leader of the free world or the folks who aspire to his job — Bobby Jindal and Amy Klobuchar, more on them later — they get a big laugh. (**Read full text of Obama’s speech at The Fix)
Regarding sequester: “Because of sequester, they cut my tails. My joke writers have been placed on furlough…there is one thing in Washington that didn’t get cut: The length of this dinner. Yet more proof that the sequester makes no sense.”
On the White House’s recent dust-up with Bob Woodward: “Some folks think we responded to Woodward too aggressively, but hey, can anybody tell me when an administration has ever regretted picking a fight with Bob Woodward? What’s the worst that could happen?. . . Who knew Gene [Sperling] could be so intimidating? Who knew anybody named Gene could be this intimidating?”
On Joe Biden’s future: “It’s no secret that my vice president is still ambitious. But let’s face it, his age is an issue. Just the other day, I had to take Joe aside and say, ‘Joe, you are way too young to be the pope.’ ”
On the departure of longtime speechwriter Jon Favreau: “I said, ‘Favs, you can’t leave.’ And he answered with three simple words: ‘Yes, I can.’ Fortunately, he did not take the prompter on his way out.”
On “maintaining credibility” amid cynicism: “My administration recently put out a photo of me skeet shooting and even that wasn’t enough for some people. Next week, we’re releasing a photo of me clinging to religion.”
It’s unclear what prompted Obama to accept his second invitation from the elite journalism fraternity since taking office, just a year after he also RSVP’d for a second go-round at the similarly hoity-toity Alfalfa Club dinner. Last week saw him embark on a fence-mending charm offensive that included an intimate dinner with top GOP senators. He may also have wanted to make nice with journalists after the recent unpleasantness when he told the press corps he wasn’t doing anything interesting while he was actually golfing with Tiger Freakin’ Woods.
“Some of you have said that I’m ignoring the Washington press corps, that we’re too controlling,” he acknowledged to the crowd at the Renaissance Washington hotel. “You know what, you’re right. I was wrong. I want to apologize – in a video you can watch exclusively at Whitehouse.gov.” Ba-dum-bump.
But then, even the journalists of the Gridiron have had a weirdly distant relationship with the rest of the press: No reporters covering it are allowed in. This year, the organization finally agreed to let a single pool reporter from the White House press corps sit in for the president’s remarks only. The rest of the evening we non-members glean from official transcripts, a glimpse of dress rehearsal and the dispatches from our leak-prone colleagues inside.
The dinner is best known for the hokey song skits put on by a cast of political journalists (plus a few golden-throated ringers), twisting popular tunes with current-event lyrics. Sort of like Senior Spirit Day at your old high school, but with better costumes.
For example: Clarence Page, the Pulitzer-winning columnist and surprisingly competent tune-carrier, portraying NRA President Wayne LaPierre, and singing, to the tune of “My Guy”. . .
Nothing you could say could tear me away from my gun (my gun)
Amendment number two says there’s nothing you can do to my gun (my gun)
I’m clinging to my gun like a girl to a feller
Nothing could be sweller than D.C. versus Heller.
Get it? The landmark Supreme Court ruling that overturned D.C.’s handgun ban? No? Well, this probably wasn’t your kind of scene anyway. Perhaps you would have preferred the fairly obvious gag about the pope’s Twitter account (“Give me that online religion / It’s good enough for me”). Or the inevitable David Petraeus spoof, naturally to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Modern Major General”:
It really all began because I had a way of mentoring
Aphrodite knocked upon my door and then I let her in
I still just don’t believe it but I saw it with my own two eyes
To think it all began with just a simple form of exercise.
A song mocking Obama’s bad relationship with the press was scored to the tune of “Pinball Wizard.” (“We never got this feeling from any other pol / That mighty Obama / Doesn’t like us much at all.”) The debt ceiling was handled with the melody of “Feelings”: “Ceilings, they’re coming back, debt ceilings / Trying hard to raise those ceilings of debt.” And to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”:
Mandatory legislative budget sequestration
across the board affecting every sector of our nation
dairy goats and pleasure boats and civil aviation
mandatory legislative budget sequestration!
Journalist Susan Milligan, portraying Hillary Clinton, belted out this ditty about her 2016 prospects, to the tune of the old Beatles classic: “Will you select me, will you elect me, when I’m 69?” But the bigger crowd-pleaser, at least at the dress rehearsal performance, was the Gridiron member who played a defiant Biden, taking credit for Obama’s legislative victories to the tune of “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel: “I’m not Barack! I am Joe Biiiii-uh-iii-den!”
The Gridiron tradition is to invite a key Republican and Democrat to deliver their comic stylings — this year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).
Jindal joked about his “disastrous” stint giving the Republican response to Obama’s 2009 State of the Union (“My dad called and said – ‘I told you to go to medical school’”) and about his own 2016 hopes:
“I mean, come on. What chance does a skinny guy with a dark complexion and a funny name have to get elected president of the United States?” Plenty more ethnic humor where that came from: “The president and I had the exact same campaign slogan years ago. But unfortunately UPS sued both of us and made us stop using it: ‘What can brown do for you?’. . . When I first went to Congress, I would always get asked by friends, ‘Hey, have you met my friend Congressman So and So.’. . . I don’t know, all white people look alike to me!” (**Read Bobby Jindal’s full Gridiron speech at The Fix)
Jindal kept up the shtick, shouting out to John Boehner (“we go to the same tanning salon”) and Elizabeth Warren (“from one Indian politician to another, I want to wish you all the best in your new job”) and Joe Biden (“I don’t think he recognized me. . . He asked me to go get him a Slurpee.”)
(Plus, a timely riff on Mark Sanford trying to hire his ex-wife as his campaign manager: “In Louisiana, if you try to get a woman back in your life by telling her you will pay her…that’s called solicitation.”)
Klobuchar picked up Jindal’s theme: “I know the governor and the president and I agree on one thing: One day soon, maybe not next year, maybe not in our children’s lifetime, but one day you will once again have a white male politician speak at the Gridiron.”
And she joked about her own midwestern ethos, recalling her first big luncheon at at the Capitol: “I go over and get a salad and a bowl of soup. . . . Patty Murray jumps up, runs around the table, grabs my arm and says ‘Amy, you just took the entire bowl of Thousand Island dressing and you’re about to eat it.” And I looked at her and say: “That’s what we do in Minnesota: We eat the Thousand Island dressing.”
She also went a little blue, citing the supposedly 20,000 or so emails that prompted an investigaton of Gen. John Allen’s personal life. Most men, she joked, don’t have hard drives that big.
The crowd groaned. “Lean in!” she told them, riffing on Sheryl Sandberg’s new feminist mantra. “Women can make a dirty joke. Lean in!”
Well played. The president seemed to agree. “I’m worried about Al Franken,” Obama said as he took the stage after Klobuchar. “How do you go from being one of the funniest writers on ‘Saturday Night Live’ to being the second-funniest senator from the state of Minnesota.”
6 p.m. Sunday: This post has been updated
From 2011: Obama gets laughs at first Gridiron Club dinner as president, 3/13/11
From 2012: At elite Gridiron Club dinner, the joke’s on Mitt Romney, 3/25/12