Mark Twain, who had been a reporter, and something of a reprobate if accounts of his behavior are to be believed, once gave this advice to aspiring practitioners of the trade:
"Get your facts first, and then you can distort 'em as much as you please."
In that spirit, on this first weekend of spring, when all sorts of old/new things are bursting forth, let us consider the annual foolishness of the Gridiron Club and the state of humor in American life, especially its political life. Well, yes, and while we're at it, the relationship between press and politicians.
Last night the Gridiron Club, a Washington group of newspaper people, celebrated its 100th birthday with the annual lampoon of pooh-bahs of public life. The white-tie dinner, ostensibly "off the record," (an impossibility, of course, in a room filled with reporters, columnists, editors, anchormen, publishers and hordes of high-level news sources) was attended, as usual, by the president and other mighties.
Now the Gridiron Club's dinner is an occasion that, over the decades, has earned a reputation for humor. (Whether deserved or not we'll get to in a moment.) The politicians are put on the gridiron -- the cooking implement, not the field for football maneuvers, since the game of football was unknown when this group came into being -- and "sizzled" by satirical skits performed by members of the press wearing elaborate and consciously silly costumes.
As befits a centennial, last night's show included a historical reprise of numbers performed from presidencies long past. On the evidence of what the audience heard last night, most of those early ones were -- well, a kind critic would say dated.
In 1909, for instance, the club lampooned President William Howard Taft, our only 300-pound chief executive, who, it seems, had made a gustatory campaign swing through the South. Gridiron members that year sang, to the tune of "Marching Through Georgia":
Sound the good old dinner horn, we'll sing another song
About the trip that Taft once made when with di-ges-tion strong
He ate his share of ev'ry-thing that they would bring along
As he went eat-ing through Geor-gia.
Four years later, in 1913, in a perfectly awful number performed by male members in female dress (there were no women in the club until United Press International's Helen Thomas broke that barrier 10 years ago), the journalists took note of women demonstrating for equal rights by singing, to the tune of "Three Blind Mice":
We want pants! We want pants!
So do our sis-ters, cous-ins and aunts!
We're tired of wielding a fry-ing pan
Equal rights we want with Man
Keep them from us if you can.
Perhaps this was funny then -- to the men, anyway. Or perhaps it's an example of what E.B. White was talking about when it came to the survivability of newspaper humor. White, in a characteristically brilliant introduction to a priceless anthology, "A Subtreasury of American Humor" (Coward-McCann), that he and his wife, Katharine, compiled years ago, confessed that they gave up trying to collect "what we fondly called 'newspaper humor,' " explaining:
"Old newspaper stories have an odor all their own; they are extremely hard to run down, and after you find them, you wish you hadn't. Something has happened to them in the meantime . . . . This is not said in disparagement of the humor of the press, or of reporters, plenty of whom are first-class humorists and are daily performing a brilliant feat in gathering news and transmitting it somewhat humorously. It simply means that even the perfect newspaper story, by the most expert and gifted reporter, dies like a snake with the setting of the sun."
That was written in 1941 when American journalism boasted of such bright talents as Robert Benchley, James Thurber and Dorothy Parker and the long newspaper tradition for presenting humor ran from "Orpheus C. Kerr," Mark Twain, Finley Peter Dunne, all of whom became famous in the last century, down through Ring Lardner, Don Marquis, Franklin P. Adams and others in this one.
The rich vein of humor is being mined today by the likes of Art Buchwald and Russell Baker in the newspapers, Andy Rooney on TV and Mark Russell and Mark Shields in many areas of media; but there seem fewer real humorists in journalism. Increasingly, personality seems more valued than wit.
Maybe it's just me, but the papers seem more ponderous today, despite what are clearly the best trained, best educated and probably most talented crop of young journalists. Perhaps today's news is too serious to be leavened by a bit of humor.
The quality of Gridiron humor over the years says something else about the press. While the skits have become more sophisticated and the verse infinitely better in recent years, the spoofs continue to be gentle. Not that they are without bite. Last night, President Reagan heard himself parodied, to the strains of "On the Road Again," by a Gridiron member singing: "It's old Ron a-gain, gon-na jump-start good old Ron a-gain." And Vice President Bush listened while a female member, acting as Barbara Bush, sang about her "husband": "With Helms at his side, and Fal-well his guide, the right wing will think he's the rage. With his man-hood in trust, to be free he'll lust: He's a Bush in a gild-ed cage."
Still, the skits remain what they always have been. They "singe but never burn" -- which, despite all the current rhetoric about the biased press, is about how the great majority of the American press deals with the politicians it covers, no matter what the ideologues believe.
Real humor, as Mark Twain defined it, springs from a recognition that "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."
By that Twain standard, the Gridiron's humor fails.
Too bad old Mark wasn't around to see the latest production. He'd brand it for what it is: foolishness. But you know what? I suspect the old newspaperman in him would enjoy, if not seeing the politicians squirm, then at least watching journalists do what we always have done best: acting silly. Poor fools, we even like it. We have the naive notion that poking fun at the powerful -- and most especially at ourselves -- and then watching each other laugh may be just the tonic this portentous capital of democracy needs.