At Gridiron, Pulling Only Certain Punches
By Michael Colton
"So how was your week?" began President Clinton at the annual Gridiron Club dinner Saturday night, prompting a wave of laughter. An easy line but effective given the accusations against the president that dominated the week's headlines.
"Please withhold the subpoenas until all the jokes have been told," Clinton continued, and then launched into riffs on "Primary Colors," the "Millennium Bug" and, especially, his lawyers.
"I offer my remarks with this caveat: They were a whole lot funnier before the lawyers got a hold of them."
While the rest of the country has spent the last two months wondering how Clinton might extricate himself from his current legal problems, members and guests of the Gridiron Club have anxiously awaited the return of his sense of humor. Would he have the temerity to make fun of himself?
At the Gridiron, Clinton showed he's still the First Comedian.
"He took stuff on very directly, and made it appropriately self-deprecating and funny without being disrespectful," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), echoing the opinions of many Gridiron guests.
The Gridiron dinner is the one of the oddest of Washington traditions, an annual mating ritual between the press and politicians. The club made up of 60 active print journalists, 75 retired ones and 11 "limited" members brought in for their singing ability performed skits and songs lampooning current events to 600 bigwigs gathered in the Capital Hilton ballroom. Between courses of wild mushroom broth with roasted peppers, tenderloin of beef with blackened peppercorns and horseradish sauce, and apple pie, the fourth estate blended seamlessly with the government.
"I'm an anthropologist here I just observe," said filmmaker Ken Burns, a Gridiron guest for the 10th time. "It's a ritual of democracy. All the other days, [politicians and the media] are positively and negatively charged. Tonight they exist as one atom."
"It's one of the great role reversals in American life," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). "You couldn't do it anywhere else. . . . Except Canada. You could do it in Canada."
It was a night when finger-pointing was replaced by handholding (literally, during the night's closing rendition of "Auld Lang Syne") and when reporters were treated like the big shots they cover. Interspersed among Gridiron members and other journalists such as NBC's Tim Russert and PBS's Jim Lehrer were Attorney General Janet Reno, Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, California Gov. Pete Wilson and White House press secretary Mike McCurry. First Friend Vernon Jordan was there, exchanging vigorous thumbs-ups with the president when the attorney was introduced to the crowd.
"Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt was there, too, as were Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R), Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel, former GOP presidential candidates Lamar Alexander and Pat Robertson, actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith, and Jim and Sarah Brady. It was a night for odd couplings, like the tete-a-tete between Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa Jr.
Gridiron member Helen Thomas of United Press International introduced Steve Forbes as representing the long-neglected "angry affluent." Columnist Mark Shields, a new Gridiron member, said Buchanan had already selected a female running mate for 2000, "but we don't know yet if Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott has accepted." House Speaker Newt Gingrich joked that ABC's Sam Donaldson was wearing his "lightweight toupee" to celebrate the first day of spring.
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived late, sparking speculation that she wanted to minimize the time she spent sitting next to Gingrich. Her press secretary, Marsha Berry, said the first lady had remained at the White House to greet Chelsea, back from Stanford University for spring break.
CBS's Mike Wallace showed up in black tie a faux pas for an evening that demanded white tie and tails. "I wonder if they'll let me in," joked Wallace, who said he had been overseas and didn't have time to obtain the proper attire.
Ubiquitous lawyer William Ginsburg, surprisingly, did not show. His name, though, appeared on the seating chart, at the same table as advice columnist Ann Landers (who looked so cute holding hands with her sister, Abigail Van Buren, as they worked the room).
The evening is supposedly off the record, allowing journalists the chance to be anonymous sources. Yet there are leaks. Many leaks. Torrents of leaks. "It's a fiction that it's off the record," said Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift.
And though the event is traditionally closed to the working press, well . . . let's just say, "Have white tie, will gain access."
Given the news of the last two months, Gridiron speakers and performers had plenty of material on which to draw.
"It's the best moment possible to have a Gridiron dinner," says club member John Hall of Media General News Service. "That's what the club is for to laugh at each other at moments like these. But anyone that's looking for 'kick 'em in the shins'-type of sophomoric sex humor is going to be disappointed."
"It's obviously more awkward this year," says Gridiron member Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun. "But Gridiron shows are never really tough."
After all, the club's motto is "We may singe, but we never burn." Clinton knew he was relatively safe here; another of the club's traditions is that no cast member ever represents the president onstage.
"It's like in the Old Testament, you couldn't say the ineffable word 'Yahweh,'" says columnist Robert Novak, this year's Gridiron president.
The skits did not shy away from "Topic A," but tended to make fun of the scandal, not the president. Typical of the evening's tone was a song that featured Douglas Turner of the Buffalo News as George Stephanopoulos instructing four giggly, flirty White House interns in green schoolgirl outfits and berets. To the tune of "People Will Say We're in Love," Turner sang:
Why do they think up stories that link young chicks with him?
Guests craned their necks to see Clinton's reaction; he appeared to be smiling, though clearly not guffawing like some others.
Another popular sketch featured columnist Carl Rowan as a golf-ready Jordan, singing, in the attorney's halting cadence, to the tune of "Deep River":
Many of the songs were turned inward, making fun of the press. Reflecting polls that show Americans are more interested in the booming economy than in the president's sex life, the cast sang to the tune of "All That Jazz":
Got Dow Jones, we don't need Paula Jones.
And on the media's predilection for sleaze, to the tune of "Anything Goes":
In olden days if news was sexy,
The only song that directly attacked the president was not about the scandal at all, but about Clinton's loyalty (or lack of it). Dressed as Socks, the First Feline, Randall Brooks of the Christian Broadcasting Network sang about the president's new love for Buddy played by The Washington Post's William Raspberry to the tune of "Memory":
I remember the times when he swore that he was pro-cat.
The last line caused more than a few jaws to drop, including that of Anna Deavere Smith. "It was a wonderfully complicated song," she said.
In his own performance, which came at the end of the four-hour dinner, Clinton stayed vague on the subject at hand. He never actually mentioned the names Lewinsky, Willey, Ginsburg or Tripp, and instead made fun of his new reliance on lawyers.
Among the jokes Clinton said his lawyers suggested for his speech:
"Don't answer that."
And he said McCurry proposed this speech: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Gridiron. I have nothing further to say on that. Good night.
"No, Helen, I will not parse 'Good evening' for you."
The president also found material in the new film "Primary Colors." "This is not the first time John Travolta has modeled a character on me," he said, striking a disco pose from Travolta's 1977 film, "Saturday Night Fever." "That's my theme song 'Stayin' Alive.'"
He joked about the Millennium Bug, which will make computers think it's 1900 instead of 2000.
"It's time for the American people to build a bridge to the 20th century: where every 8-year-old can churn butter, where every 12-year-old can work in a mine . . . where the abacus can get smaller and more powerful. . . . I will challenge America to send a man to the South Pole and bring him back safely."
Clinton's stand-up approach was more conventional than previous Gridiron appearances. In 1993 he wore a sequined cutaway jacket and played "Yakety Yak" on his saxophone. "There's nothing like a little sax to get you out of trouble," he said to the audience's delight.
How times change.
Clinton was not the only politician to dish out one-liners on Saturday. Gingrich spoke on behalf of the Republicans and scored points by joking about his presidential aspirations, and of course, Clinton: "During the course of this evening's meal, President Clinton's approval ratings will go up six points."
Later, the speaker gave his own assessment of his performance: "They didn't boo. I go for minimums."
White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles spoke on behalf of the Democrats, and made fun of his own wealth, his reputation for stiffness and his boss. Of his tenure as the head of the Small Business Administration, Bowles noted that many small businesses had thrived under the Clinton administration: "The Rutherford Institute, the Star and Bernie's Bail Bonds, open 24 hours a day."
The Gridiron skits satirized figures other than the president. Another hit was a song about Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and his current opponent Geraldine Ferraro sung to the tune of "Tomorrow":
Ferraro, Ferraro, Al'll learn to his sorrow,
As Ferraro, Randall Brooks found the song familiar she played "Annie" in 680 performances on Broadway 20 years ago. Combined with her performance as Socks, she was the star of the night. "It almost makes me want to go back into show business," she said.
"But I'm in journalism, which is pretty darn close."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company