Before you can comprehend a Washington tradition like the Gridiron Club, you have to accept three givens:

1. Washington likes things that last. Eight years is pretty good. Anything longer is a hallowed tradition. Tonight, the 60 or so journalists and stray associates who make up the Gridiron will don silly costumes and sing silly songs and celebrate the club's 100th anniversary. Washington loves anything that's 100 years old.

2. Washington loves it when the president, journalists, Supreme Court justices, senators and assorted other well-stuffed, familiar faces Forget Their Worries and Just Have a Good Time.

3. Washington loves to believe it can laugh at itself.

All of which is why Washington loves the Gridiron.

"I've missed one in the last 40 years," says lawyer Clark Clifford, "and that was because I was out of the country.

"It's the one event in the year in which people in high office have to get out of their stiff-bosomed attitude and have people poke fun at them," he says, and he's already chuckling, as if practicing for tonight. "There's something about going around touching balloons with a cigar butt that's terribly fun, and that's what this is."

Or, as Richmond Times-Dispatch Washington correspondent Charles McDowell puts it: "I like the idea that the members of the press, who can be very pompous, and the members of the government, who can be very pompous, come and expose themselves and make fools of themselves."

It's also one of those Washington institutions that inspires a passionate response -- adoration or disdain -- which most people outside the Beltway, and many within, cannot quite understand.

In 1982 a new bureau chief hired one week by a California paper was unhired the next week when the publisher decided his bureau chief had to be a Gridiron member. In the early '60s, the Washington Star published an annual list of the names of all 600 guests, as if preserving a vital record for future historians.

And over and over again, people said the club was finished. The shows, written and performed by club members with the assistance of a handful of good singers from outside the world of journalism, just aren't funny anymore, the critics said. The club is elitist and discriminatory, they said, limited in size, all-white until 1972 and all-male until 1975. The whole thing is just an opportunity for reporters and publishers to cozy up to the people they cover, they said.

They've pretty much stopped saying things like that now. Maybe the club has changed. Maybe no one outside the club cares much anymore. Or maybe it's just that the club is tailor-made for the Reagan years.

"I know General Eisenhower hated it," says Clifford. "Lyndon Johnson despised it. Jimmy Carter couldn't stand it. Harry Truman went through it because he knew it was one of the rites of spring. President Reagan, he seems to enjoy it. In the first place, it's his business, it's what he grew up in. This is play acting, do you see, this is entertainment. And, they're very sparing in their criticism of him."

And so, in 1983, Ronald Reagan did more than just give the traditional humorous speech. He joined the chorus line and sang his own version of "Man ana." It followed the show in 1982 when Nancy Reagan did a few self-mocking choruses of "Second-Hand Rose" but with the words changed to "Second-Hand Clothes." It was, many said, the beginning of a whole new public image for the first lady.

But everything wasn't always so cozy. There have been hard times for the Gridiron. The club was founded in 1885 to serve as a sort of social damage control. Government officials were less than enamored of the press at the time. The reporters meddled too much, they thought. Congress, to express its displeasure, did things like passing out visitors' passes to the press gallery so there wouldn't be room for the reporters. The newsmen, feeling rather downtrodden, decided to start an organization where they could revive their own spirits and maybe even pal around with some politicians. And, of course, roast them.

Thus the Gridiron was born. It wasn't an immediate success. The 30 or so initial members were asked to pay one dollar to show good faith. Only 15 paid. The first year, the president of the club, a columnist named Benjamin Perley Poore, got up to give an entertaining little speech. It was, as Gridiron historians coyly put it, "pretty racy," and later that year the club decided that all future speakers should behave as if "ladies are always present."

Of course, for years there weren't any ladies there, but that's another story.

There are other rules at the Gridiron. First, you maintain the pretense that every word spoken during dinner is off the record, even though some speakers like to hand out press releases with their bons mots and no one ever says anything he wouldn't love to see in the paper. Second, you repeat frequently the club's motto that "The Gridiron may singe, but it never burns." Third, you accept certain traditions without question, like the fact that each year, before the club president begins his speech, the lights go down. It is called "The Speech in the Dark."


"I have never seen an explanation of that," says James Free, a member who is writing a history of the club.

There are other traditions. The main course at the dinner has always been beef and always will be beef. Or that's what everyone assumed, until they decided to duplicate the 1885 menu this year and discovered the first members ate, yes, lamb!

"At least in modern times, we have had beef," says menu master Marianne Means, a columnist for Hearst. "The feeling has been in the club that publishers like their 'hunk of beef.' " The lamb discovery confounded the food committee, which in past years has engaged in enraged debates over the choice of a sauce.

Despite the cries of some traditionalists, Means says, "The lamb just won overwhelmingly. It is the hundredth anniversary. Of course, next year we can go back to beef."

But if some things change at the Gridiron, some things definitely don't.

For example, there are some things you just do not do.

Racy jokes are out. John Lindsay came to a dinner and embarrassed everyone with jokes that definitely fell within the forbidden category. Try to find out what he said, and you'll find out journalists can keep a secret when it suits them. And then in 1975, Jimmy Carter was a bad boy. "It was a barnyard joke, an outhouse joke," says Free, "which we have consigned to oblivion."

Another no-no is forgetting that this is a moment for jovial togetherness. The mood was slightly dented during a Harding-era dinner, when a man in top hat and tuxedo entered the white-tie dinner to serve the Interior secretary with a subpoena. Then there was the memorable disagreement between Rep. Hale Boggs and columnist Drew Pearson. "It led to some violence before they were separated," says Free delicately, "but this was not in the dining room at all, it was in the men's room."

It's the sort of distinction that matters to a Gridiron member.

In 1956, Harry Truman stayed home because Richard Nixon was going.

"I will not sit at the same table with Nixon," he wrote in a letter to the club explaining his decision. "He has never refuted his statement that I am a traitor, but even if he did, my feelings about him would remain the same . . . I just cannot sit with that fellow."

In 1964, both Truman and Nixon attended the dinner, which proves that personal enmities may come and go, but the Gridiron lives on.

And a good thing, too, say its members.

"I think it personifies, really, the greatness of democracy," says Helen Thomas, UPI White House correspondent and the first female member of the club. "The fact that the press can roast and kind of kid the president and government. It symbolizes what we're all about -- the give and take of this government."

Nixon became the first president to take to the stage with an act of his own in 1970 when he performed a piano duet with Spiro Agnew to demonstrate the unanimity of their "Southern strategy." At one piano, Nixon played a series of songs -- "Home on the Range," "The Missouri Waltz" -- that were, he said, the favorites of past presidents. As he began each song, Agnew, at another piano, drowned him out with "Dixie."

It was, according to the guests, an overwhelming hit.

But after that success, things began to sour for Nixon, and he avoided the dinner and its jibes from 1971-1974. (All presidents have attended at least one of the dinners, except for Grover Cleveland, who was angered by stories claiming he had an illegitimate child.)

Some others boycotted the dinner as well. Picket lines outside the Statler Hilton protesting the exclusion of women went inside and became counter-Gridiron parties, attracting potential Gridiron guests such as former senators Charles Percy and Edmund Muskie.

"The feeling was intense then, when I was first elected," says columnist Carl Rowan, who became the first black member in 1972. "I went into that dinner that night, and journalist Sarah McClendon and some others were outside the Hilton with their signs. I can remember Sarah hollering, 'Et tu, Carl? Et tu, Carl?' I hollered, 'Don't worry, we'll change it.' "

And they did, which enabled the club to include dancing in the skits, something Rowan had been looking forward to. "It's pretty hard to have a dance number with no women. I'm not much for waltzing with a guy in drag."

There are now five women and two black members.

"The Gridiron Club was pretty much of a cause ce'le bre in the mid and late '60s and early '70s," says member Charles McDowell.. "The people in the profession were saying, 'What is this group? It's all male. It's all white. It's secretive. It's 50 people in a town which has gone from 500 journalists to 3,000 in such a short time.'

"I don't hear that anymore," says McDowell. "It has a history that speaks for itself and some of that would be embarrassing today. When Helen Thomas and Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory were picketing and calling out, 'You sexist dog,' a lot of consciences were strained and should have been. But that bump is past as far as I can tell."

McDowell is anchor of a Channel 26 program about the history of the Gridiron that will air on May 6. For the first time (and don't think there wasn't a lot of debate about this) a television camera will film the dinner this year. No bright lights, mind you, and the camera only stays for part of the show.

The rest is on deep background.