President Obama trades friendly barbs at Gridiron Club dinner

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger
Monday, March 14, 2011; C01

It took three attempts, but the Gridiron Club - a hokey, hallowed vestige of swampland-era Washington - finally got President Obama to show up for its annual dinner Saturday night. And yet, what did the members get? No respect, we tell you - no respect!

The president told the 650 guests at the downtown Renaissance Hotel that they were meeting at a time when "a powerful spirit of change is tearing down old regimes, decaying institutions, remnants of the past."

Pause. "So, look out, Gridiron Club. . . . I mean, look at this get-up. Forget about winning the future. How about entering the present?"

By that point, though, Obama had already been serenaded by a gang of Gridiron members, impersonating the GOP House leadership while dressed as Hells Angels, about how they're "gonna block Barack around the clock," to the tune of the old Bill Haley song.

We're gonna move Obama to the right

We're gonna mock mock mock his election fight

We're gonna talk, gonna talk, and then we might indict!

Yes, America, it's one of those Washington dinners: where leading politicians and media elite dress up in their finest - white tie, in this case - to eat, drink and lob passive-aggressive jokes at one another, in a way that seems pointed and mean but only serves to feed the beyond-the-Beltway suspicion that They Are All in Bed Together.

Such as: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels joking that he got his duds from "the bearded guy at Men's Wearhouse. Anyone else notice, you never see him and Wolf Blitzer in the same place at the same time?" Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Mitt Romney: "We have more in common than our hairstyles; we both used to think health-care reform would advance our careers." Al Hunt of Bloomberg feigning surprise that the absent Sen. Chuck Schumer would miss a chance to schmooze reporters: "It's like Charlie Sheen missing a hookers' convention."

Only among friends, right? They kid because they love. Right?

In the D.C.-as-high-school metaphor, where the 3,000-person White House Correspondents' Association spring dinner is fondly known as "prom," Gridiron is something like the Student Council Follies. The 126-year-old group is a relatively exclusive cadre of the Washington press corps - limited to 65 active members, most of them well over age 50 - whose preferred method of entertainment in 2011 remains Broadway-style current-events song parodies.

But we confess: Some of it is kinda funny. Worthy of a 12:52 a.m. slot on "Saturday Night Live," even. In the Act 2 finale, "Karl Rove," dressed as a mad scientist, sang to the Johnny Cash tune "I've Been Everywhere": "I've seen every one, man . . ./They all wanna run, man/Egos by the ton, man . . ." (Rove was played by the Marine Band's Kevin Bennear - like many of Gridiron's best voices, not a full member but a ringer enlisted for the occasion.)

And with that, a parade of 20 Gridiron members traipsed across the stage, goofily costumed as the 2012 GOP hopefuls: Romney in a hospital gown, Rick Santorum as an altar boy, Haley Barbour as a Confederate soldier, Michele Bachmann in thigh-high red boots, Rudy Giuliani in a pink ball gown and so on. (Don't get the jokes? Then you're not as politics-consumed as this audience.)

I've seen Huckabee at his weekly weigh-in

Sarah Palin out surveyin'

Eye of Newt and chin of Romney

Guy in drag, that's Giuliani

Mitt, he's drivin' fast and far

With man's best friend strapped to his car

Maybe you had to be there - not that we were. The oddity of this journalist-hosted dinner is that it's on the record yet off-limits to any non-member journalists writing about it - forcing us to beg for details from wine-bleary colleagues inside the room. (We gleaned much of the musical entertainment from a Friday afternoon dress rehearsal.) Once again this year, C-SPAN begged the Gridiron, in the name of "openness and transparency," to admit its cameras into the dinner, and once again it was rebuffed. We get it, though: Would the president have brought the same edge to his routine with cameras there?

Like the one about how before Rahm Emanuel joined him as chief of staff, his approval ratings were above 60 percent and unemployment was below 8 percent - so "Good luck, Chicago!" And how he's grateful for Barbour's support of the first lady's anti-obesity campaign, but "Haley, when Michelle said you need to run, she didn't mean for president!" (Because he's fat - get it?) As for Jon Huntsman, his former ambassador to China who's now pondering his own 2012 Republican bid: "The next GOP nominee for president. Love that guy!" If Huntsman runs, Obama said he'd be the guy in New Hampshire holding the "Honk for Huntsman" signs on the side of the road; if he has an Iowa fish fry, Obama said he'd be there to cook. "He is truly the yin to my yang, and I'm going to make sure every primary voter knows it."

John Boehner jokes were big, of course. The president said he used to think the House speaker was tan, but after seeing him tear up so much, he realized: "That's not a tan - that's rust!" A Gridiron skit had Fake Boehner singing "It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to," Lesley Gore-style. ("I'm try'n to show them some leadership here/Some gravitas and some guts/How did I end up in bed/With all these tea party nuts?")

By all accounts, Daniels, the official Republican speaker of the night, slayed the room with a routine that was both self-deprecatory and snarky. On his own presidential prospects, "all this favorable press I've been getting . . . it's hard not to let it go to your head: 'small,' 'stiff,' 'short,' 'pale,' 'unimposing,' 'unassuming,' 'uninspiring.' . . . It's destiny!" About that sling on his right arm: "Rotator cuff surgery was really a cover story. The truth is I broke a rib traveling to last month's governors' conference. I drew a middle seat between Haley Barbour and Chris Christie. . . . I couldn't get up to go to the bathroom. Their tummies were stuck in the full upright and locked position."

Sebelius, the night's Democratic speaker, recommended the president "consider folding the TSA into our department. We could make life a lot easier for the businessman on the go - by allowing him to get a boarding pass and a colonoscopy at the same time."

Ah, good times. Sorry none of us was there for Gridiron's age-old closing ritual, in which all guests linked arms to sing "Auld Lang Syne." A more memorable musical moment may have come when the Marine Band struck up "Hail to the Chief" to welcome the president.

Obama waved them off: "Play that song we talked about," he ordered.

And they did: "Born in the U.S.A."

"Some things just bear repeating," he said.

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