By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007
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 said 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. In his end-of-the-evening speech, Cheney referred to recent reports that the home of former vice president Al Gore uses more than the average amount of energy. "Many argue that global warming is man-made," Cheney said, "and it looks like they found the man."
Other guests 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:
· 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."
· 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."
· Two very good 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 Arctics," 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."
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 evening is considered to be off the record, but information does leak.
Preparations take months. Members are allotted four tickets apiece, more if they bring newsmakersfrom the club's wish list. Retired Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was there 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 his remarks approved by two Washington experts in humor and brevity: 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?