Truce of the Penguins
Imagine you're dressed like an unnaturally tall penguin -- not a mere tuxedo but full white tie and tails, requiring you to either flap or tuck whenever you sit down -- and you've gracefully elbowed your way through a dense waddle of fellow penguins to the bar, where you've obtained an adult beverage, because you'll be doing this penguin thing for at least five more hours, and up walks John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States. He's dressed like a penguin, too.
Okay, you're a columnist who worries that the Roberts court may lead the country disastrously to the right. This is your first chance to meet the chief justice, and what you've heard is true -- he seems like a heck of a nice guy. So what do you say?
Do you harangue him about how the Bush administration should be compelled to respect the limits of executive power, or end the conversation with something like, "It's been very nice talking with you, Mr. Chief Justice, and by the way, please don't overturn Roe v. Wade ''? No, you don't. You enjoy a few minutes of pleasant chit-chat, and when he wanders off you take a long sip of your adult beverage and motion to the bartender for a refill.
That scene took place Saturday night at the 121st annual Gridiron Club dinner, one of those Washington rituals that, to those who don't live here, must seem as alien as a Masai initiation rite. The Gridiron is the oldest journalists' association in town, and it exists solely to host a yearly evening at which the people who run the United States mingle socially with those who cover them.
I'm not a member, but I have friends who belong, and so, for the second time, I was invited (the first was seven years ago). The dinner, at which Gridiron members roast our highest officials in elaborate theatrical skits, is supposed to be off the record, and I'll respect that prohibition. But a room full of journalists leaks like a sieve, so all the best jokes were reported verbatim in the next morning's newspapers. Suffice it to say that some of the skits were really funny, some fell flat, Dick Cheney had to endure shotgun jokes from his boss and even his wife, and if this politics thing doesn't work out for Sen. Barack Obama he could step in for David Letterman tomorrow.
The point isn't the program or the performances. The point is that the nation's leading journalists get together with the people they are supposed to hold accountable and have an evening of penguin-suited, designer-gowned fellowship.
This year's gathering reminded me of the famous World War I "Christmas truce," when soldiers emerged from their trenches to celebrate the holiday season together and then went back to killing each other. There sat George W. Bush, whose administration is constantly being assailed by the media (rightfully, in my view) for Iraq, Katrina, secrecy, surveillance, deficits -- the list goes on and on. There sat many of the nation's most influential reporters and editors, who within hours would resume the assault.
It sounds bloody, but that's the way the adversarial relationship between journalists and officials is supposed to work. Yet, for the evening, adversaries joshed and joked over lamb and creme brulee.
With apologies to my hosts, I ended up feeling conflicted about the whole thing.
Reporters wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't get to know the officials they cover. Politicians, even those who I believe have wrong ideas about everything, tend to be garrulous and fun to be around. The Gridiron dinner and other similar events on the calendar each year seek to demonstrate that adversaries don't have to be enemies.
But we reporters are always pointing out to officials that as far as conflict of interest is concerned, appearance is as important as reality. That's why I left the Gridiron dinner with that vague unease: I wondered what it looked like to people who weren't in that ballroom.
The day after the dinner, reporters went back to trying to pry information out of this ultra-secretive administration. But I wondered what people in Seattle or New Orleans or Cleveland would think if they saw the journalistic elite at such jocular ease with the officials whose feet they hold to the fire.
Houston, do we have an appearance problem?
The writer will be taking questions today at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.