At the Gridiron, Pols and Press Share A Little Sizzle and a Lot of Cheese

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

The annual Gridiron Club dinner, that white-tie relic of old Washington, has come and gone again. It ended with the first and last performance of President Bush and the Busharoos. But more on that later.

Last night, Washington's journalistic and political elite -- about 600 total -- gathered at the downtown Renaissance Hotel for an evening of satirical song and dance. The scribes wrote the skits; the pols took the potshots.

There was Condoleezza Rice in brown, pausing in the hotel lobby to congratulate a bride-to-be staying in the hotel for her bachelorette party. So nice, the bridesmaids reported.

There was perpetual attendee and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns comparing this dinner to those of years past: "The Clinton ones used to go on and on. Now there's a little more achtung to it."

There was Mayor Adrian Fenty, scurrying in at the last minute to meet his date, Tim Russert.

Bush was there, ready to be the butt of jokes for his last Gridiron as president, and 13 of his Cabinet members were present, too.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama sent emissaries in their stead, though the trio's presidential campaigns provided lots of fodder for the show.

Some of the coverage in past years implied that we're all supposed to haaate the Gridiron. Haaate its exclusivity (just 65 active members), haaate the elbow-rubbing (the New York Times boycotted the event this year for that reason), haaate its fusty resistance to change (the 123-year-old club didn't admit women until the 1970s; television and radio correspondents weren't allowed until 2005).

And yet the whole show was vintage charming.

Maybe it was seeing White House correspondent Helen Thomas dressed up as a 19th-century schoolmarm, pretending to be Rice teaching democracy to foreign heads of state.

Or the meta experience of watching a quintet of old white guys -- including Bob Novak, Al Hunt -- pretend to be old white guys -- Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani -- and sing the "old white guy" blues (Al Hunt can totally pull off a gown, by the way; he was doing Giuliani in drag).

Maybe it was the way a chorus of veteran journalists wryly belted out a song about the good old days of their floundering industry: "We used to take our sources to the finest spots to dine. Now we go to Mickey D's, where the patrons stand in line. . . . Our budget's looking thinner, and my stock ain't worth a dime."

Budget was clearly not an issue for this production, costumed by legendary Baltimore outlet A.T. Jones & Sons and costing upwards of $250 a plate.

Maybe it's the fact that the entire dinner is technically off the record -- all skits were seen at dress rehearsal -- but each year participants helpfully blab most of the evening's program.

On to reliably sourced highlights:

Gridiron President Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News kicked off the night with the traditional "speech in the dark," before segueing into the Democratic skit.

You had a kneeling Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune hamming it up as Dennis Kucinich, singing "I Got You Babe" with club secretary Cheryl Arvidson as wife Elizabeth. Sample lyrics: "Babe, you're my man, my Keebler Elf. We'll run again in two-thousand-and-twelve."

You had one of the Gridiron's "limited members" -- admitted to the club only for vocal chops -- bringing down the house as Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) singing "Old Internal Revenue Code" (tune of "Old Time Rock and Roll"). The skit marked the first occurrence of loud "Woooooos!" from the audience.

Rangel was supposed to be the Democratic speaker for the evening. He was hospitalized with the flu at the last minute, but no one wanted to scrap the skit. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) pinch-hit and spoke in Rangel's place.

"Either I'm going to strike out or hit a home run," he said. "In which case Henry Waxman is going to haul me in front of his committee to testify about my use of steroids."

More "Woooooes." Audience clearly thought he hit the home run.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison represented the Republicans; she dedicated much of her speech to educating Bush on how his life will change when he returns to their shared home state of Texas.

"At the zoo in Washington, the cage has the name of the animal, then the name in Latin. In a Texas zoo, we have the name of the animal and the recipe," Hutchison said.

And there were Obama and Clinton cracks, tons of them, including a fairy-tale rendition of "O-bama-lot," sung by limited member Mike Ryan in full chain-mail regalia: "Climb a wall no one else can climb. Slay a Clinton in record time." Judy Woodruff played Guinevere; two performers made up the four legs of a white horse.

Note: New members of the Gridiron pay their dues. The horse's front legs belonged to inductee Jane Norman; the horse's behind went to newbie Robin Sproul.

Three other journalists made their Gridiron debuts this year: John King, Tom Toles and Todd Purdum.

Since the Gridiron's motto is "singe but never burn," the show's humor is mostly gentle, a little corny. It's a teensy bit like a well-funded talent show at creaky summer camp.

The Republican skit had a Texan theme, to honor the heritage of Bush and Leubsdorf. Cowboy boots and hats abounded in the chorus.

The highlight? "Sheiks Peddlin' Oil," an ensemble ode to skyrocketing gas prices. It even one-upped the Dems' steed, with a bejeweled two-person camel (Guess who was in that sweltering suit? Yep: new guys Toles and Purdum).

A gun-slinging Ann Coulter impersonator threatened to take her conservative boots walking unless McCain got a little more right-thinking: "A foot soldier in Ronald Reagan's Army? Hah!"

The show wrapped up with the full cast belting out a farewell to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

But Bush had the last word; make that song. With a gang of Busharoos, he crooned about his future back in Texas, singing: "I spend my days clearing brush, clear my head of all the fuss, like that big fuss you made over Harriet and Brownie. Down the lane I look and here comes Scooter, finally free of the prosecutor. It's good to touch the brown, brown grass of home." He even paid the news media a compliment: "When you are not writing stories, you are not half bad."

Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.

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