Skewers, but Not Much Sizzle, At Obamaless Gridiron Dinner

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

The media just wanted a good cuddle with their golden boy. At the annual Gridiron Club dinner in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Renaissance, the president was supposed to be at the head table, smiling and clapping as the club's journalists flounced around in costume, belting political parodies to the tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan.

The president, however, had planned to skip the affair to spend time with his family at Camp David. Typical. String 'em along, get elected, go back to the wife. The nerve.

Chins up, Gridiron Club! Your show -- a 124-year tradition of back-patting and ego-pricking accompanied by the U.S. Marine Band -- went on Saturday night without a hitch, save for running nearly an hour behind schedule and earning mixed reviews. People are so hard to please these days.

Let's rewind to just before 7 p.m. Saturday. The night's VIPs arrive on a scab-colored welcome mat that functions as a red carpet: mayors, governors, Cabinet members, TV personalities and plenty of people that kinda-sorta look familiar. Without Obama, the highest wattage belongs to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, sweeping in with wife Maria Shriver, who's seemingly shrink-wrapped in a tight shoulder-baring violet gown.

The Governator is here to deliver his party's "response" to the Gridiron's skits. Down they go on two flights of escalators to the grand ballroom. Six hundred people are squeezed into 18 long tables, sandwiched between the stage and the head table, where Schwarzenegger sits between Chief Justice John Roberts and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, with Vice President Biden in Obama's place.

Then, in dire need of some liquored-up levity, the capital's journalists (laid off, bought out) and politicians (raged at, bailout-weary) sing and eat and drink and doze off and applaud and cringe, making light of their problems.

Here's NBC's Andrea Mitchell in a bear costume introducing a number that lampoons her husband, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, to the tune of "What I Did for Love" from "A Chorus Line."

Kiss the Dow goodbye . . .

And let the markets tumble.

Ho ho, ha ha! Garçon, more champagne! Then the evening's most applauded number, with a Dick Cheney impersonator (in wheelchair and fishing gear) channeling Sinatra and referencing George W. Bush: "He did it myyy wayyy."

Now, a quick peek backstage, where the Gridiron Club's members are donning costumes, downing drinks and simmering over the president's absence. They're "very upset" and "dissed." Not since Grover Cleveland has a president skipped the dinner in his first year in office. Obama cited family commitments, but it's entirely probable that he didn't want to be seen in white tie and tails at a $300-a-plate dinner of lobster panna cotta, yukking it up with Beltway insiders, while the economy bottoms out.

If it's continuity you're looking for, there's the doyenne of Washington media, Helen Thomas, sitting by herself in her orthopedic shoes. She has only a cameo this year. Her cue is in three hours, but she's ready anyway, sitting, smiling, happy to be here. Everyone could learn a lesson from Thomas.

Onstage, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer has donned a Stetson to play George W. Bush. "He's in the White House now -- not my problem now," Schieffer sings to the tune of "In the Jailhouse Now." Schieffer can't point anywhere specific on the word "he" because Obama isn't there, so he points into the vague middle distance.

Adrian Fenty ambles out into the lobby around 8:30. Mr. Mayor, any highlights so far?

"I don't even remember," says Fenty, eyes bloodshot, looking exhausted. Turns out he ran a marathon earlier in the day. And now another kind of marathon -- only you can't finish this one under 3 1/2 hours, as he did that morning.

By 9:30 Schwarzenegger is at the podium, resurrecting the crowd with his speech. "You did such lovely work for [Obama]," he tells the media elite. "You put your lives on hold to put him in the White House. Now you get all dressed up, the champagne's on ice, and you find out he's just not that into you."

Zing! The crowd roars.

Throughout the night, the Sarah Palin jokes keep coming, as do the Hillary Clinton jokes, unemployment jokes, AIG jokes, death-of-the-newspaper jokes, Obama-as-messiah jokes, jokes about Rahm Emanuel's potty mouth, jokes about Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh and the fate of the GOP -- everything you've heard before, and done better, on "The Daily Show." Sexy-dorky Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, takes a breather out in the lobby and looks stricken when told the event is only half over.

"Doesn't a member of the Cabinet have to be absent in case something goes wrong?" he jokes with another guest.

Inside, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page leads a ditty (set to the Monkees' "I'm a Believer") that spoofs the media's gaga relationship with Obama, who, if you remember, is absent.

Geithner exits the building around 10:40, immediately following a skit that portrays him as an incompetent gambler of the nation's money. Was he offended, or just tired and bored? The departure sets some Gridiron members atwitter backstage. Headline: Geithner Bails Out.

Back in the lobby, former Bush press secretary Dana Perino gabs to some Secret Service agents, in terse torpedolike declaratives, about how unfunny the show is. You know what is funny? Governors. First Schwarzenegger, now Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, who's delivering the Democratic response just after 11 p.m.

"I come from a state that has the worst unemployment in the nation," says Granholm, in a shimmering gold gown. "So I know what it's like to be struggling, as some of you do, as evidenced by those skits up there."

Zing! The crowd goes "Oooooh." Careful, they're still smarting from their lover's rebuff. At least six songs are directly addressed to the president, and one is a completely straight-faced celebration of his historic election and inauguration. The song features Gridiron members dressed like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. It goes off like a first-grade social studies project, receives delayed and confused applause, and is followed by a toast to the missing commander in chief. The only musical jab at Biden comes to the tune of "Some Enchanted Evening."

Some implants and weaving:

Biden's hair this evening,

Hair we can believe in!

If your show's running long, the last thing you want to do is put Joe Biden behind a microphone. But that's what happens at 11:25 p.m.

"President Obama sends his greetings," the veep says. "He can't be here tonight because he's busy getting ready for Easter. He thinks it's all about him."

It's always all about him, isn't it? News flash from the Gridiron dinner: Honeymoon's over, Mr. President. Get your zings ready for next year. You'll need them.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company