The incalculable gap between Heaven and Hell was narrowed on Saturday night when the Gridiron Club held its 94th annual dinner at the Capital Hilton for 600 journalists and their VIP guests.
The Republicans, unburdened of responsibility and free to criticize the Democrats, comprised the Heavenly Host, which included "God's very own Herald Angel," Henry Kissinger. To the tune of "Send in the Clowns," the Kissinger character questioned, "Why have a president... when I can play God?"
The denizens of that darker place were the Democrats who, because they are in power, must suffer the burning barbs of criticism.
Gridiron members who were responsible for the skits took poetic license with the original script provided by Dante Alighieri and cut out Limbo, although it might be argued that the journalists and the VIPs gling each other across the room filled in that milling gray area between the sacred and profane portrayed on the stage.
As is always the case, the humor in these events is broad and muted, the rapier barb giving way to the gentle ribbing. Gridiron decorum demands that the ribbing be shared equally by the two political parties, a tradition that made it particularly difficult to distinguish between the clative appeal of Heaven, where Kissinger bore the brunt of the pokes at an unbounded egotism. and, Hell, there the Carter administration was going penance for unbridled ineptitade.
Kissinger offered the traditional re rebuttal for the Republicans, dead panning a monologue of one-liners, many of which had been furnished by a team of former "Laugh-In" writers.
Hands in pockets, the former secretary of state rolled back and forth on his feet and his monotone droned on to the heel-toe, heel-toe beat.
Audience members were given a preview of the Kissinger autobiography: "I was born in the house that my father built... (heel-toe, heel-toe, pause)... on the planet Krypton. On page 1,361 it ends: 'And on the seventh day...?"
He also allowed as how he wasn't too worried about changing the Constitution to allow him a chance at the presidency... because there was no rule barring him from being emperor.
Rosalynn Carter, who spoke for the Democrats (the first time a first lady has filled that role), responded that the president wasn't opposed to a regerendum that would allow Kissinger to run for the presidency because "Jimmy doesn't care where people are born first."
The first lady was full of compliments in her address, beginning with one to her predecessor at the podium whom she congratulated on a "wonderful speech. I always like to hear you Yan kees talk." The members of the press were also assured that she and the president held them in the highest regard. Why every morning in fact, the Carters read the newspapers, and the first lady follows her own little ritual.
"First I read Doonesbury and Peanuts, then Evans and Novak... then I go on to the serious stuff."
Jimmy Carter was on a scheduled trip to Oklahoma Saturday night, and some Gridiron members muttered about the coincidence. Attorney General Griffin Bell delivered brief closing remarks for the absent president.
Mrs. Carter's humor followed the good-natured ribbing tradition, but Kissinger's repartee was more finely honed, occasionally to a stiletto point. It was the general opinion that he was the star of an evening some guests thought "wasn't really very funny."
Of course not everybody fully appreciated the former secretary of state's masterful swordsmanship... especially when he sliced too close to home.
Kissinger assured the audience that they shouldn't worry about China invading Vietnam because only the other day Stansfield Turner had informed President Carter that they wouldntt do it "as long as Maso is still alive."
Chinese Ambassadon Chai Zemin who [Word Illegible] to remain straight-faced throughout the evening probably wasn't the only member of the audience who didn't laugh as that one.
Among those least amused by the anties of the onetime all-male Gridiron were the wives of some of the journalists who had been sent off to the Kennedy Center while their husbands and still only a sprinkling of females, mostly other journalists, got to see the show.
"I don't know why I come" to the parties after the show, said one. "I've done it every year that my husband has been invited, and every year, I vow that I won't do it again. It makes me so mad to be excluded from the main events."
Other expressed annoyance in more subtle ways.
"Well, tell me about all the kneeknockers we missed," said one as she joined her husband at a post-Gridiron party.
"What's the difference between Ham Jordan and a turnip?" he mumbled.
"A turnip answers the telephone."
Blank stare. "Heh-heh. That's funny?"
"Well, you had to be there."
Elizabeth Taylor Warner was a Gridiron guest, which prempted uninvited actress Barbara Eden. whose husband is with the Chicago SunTimes to to remark keep thinking that maybe next year I'll get to go to the show. Now I can say to my husband. 'If Elizabeth Taylor went, why not me?'" [Word Illegible] guest was opera ment agrced to lead the last mober [Word Illegible] to morrow" from "anuncalculated funny moments of the evening lntroduced as the new director of the "Metropolitan Opera," she dramatically covered her face with her hands and shook her head sadly.
Over the years it has been great sport to make sport of the Gridiron's idea of sport, even amoong members and perpetual guests. The Gridiron no longer attacts the criticism that was aimed in its direction only a few years ago because of its (now somewhat relaxed) practice of barring women and suggestions that it was insensitive to minority problems in some of its skits. But many guests find the evening both amateurish and sophomoric.
However, they keep coming back.
Said one frequent guest, the reason is threefold: "It's one of the toughest tickets in the country to get; you will instantly recognize at least one-half of the people here; and usually the president is here and you can get to hear some off-the-record remarks."
He might also have added that one can learn intimate details about public figures such as the "Waltons" like bedtime rituals at the Carter White House confided by the first lady.