The centennial dinner of the Gridiron Club began with a rather macabre touch, which may have said something rather important about this democracy of ours.

When the members of the club -- some 60 Washington journalists -- came into the ballroom to open the show for the president, the vice president, the chief justice and about 600 other personages of varying prominence, we were carrying signs.

On each of the signs was the name -- the logo -- of a newspaper that had gone out of business in the years of the club's existence: The Oak Ridge (Tenn.) Herald. The Arizona Daily Citizen. The Philadelphia Bulletin. The Chicago Daily News. The New York Herald Tribune.

It was as if the ghosts of the newspaper graveyard had been invited to haunt what is supposed to be a Saturday evening of laughter, an evening when the newspaper writers lampoon the politicians, and a politician from each party -- plus the president -- gets in some retaliatory jokes.

Standing there, with the placards of The (Washington) Evening Star, The (New York) Journal American, The Newport Daily News and two dozen other ghost-papers, we sang a kind of memorial to those papers, while the Marine Band played "Stars and Stripes Forever":

"We sing of the last hundred years

"And the footsteps of prior generations,

"Who trod on these boards and raised cheers

"In the Gridiron's friendly glow."

What came after, in the skits we sang and the well-crafted speeches by Geraldine Ferraro, James Baker III and President Reagan, had at least as many laughs as usual. But I had the feeling that those ghosts of dead newspapers remained in the room until the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" closed the evening, reminding all of us of a point we tend too often to forget:

Newspapers and political institutions are both fragile creations. A free press and a democratic government are both rarities in this world. When they savage each other, neither is likely to survive.

There was a confirmation of that in another ghost-voice that was heard, late in the evening, when Jim Baker wove into his speech a tape-recorded message from Richard Nixon. The heavy voice of the disgraced ex-president was a reminder of what can happen when the government declares war on the press and the press helps uncover secrets that destroy that government. No one wins; every institution suffers.

I am not suggesting a non-aggression pact. None is possible on either side. At the outset of the dinner, Gridiron President John W. Kole of The Milwaukee Journal gleefully quoted the words of Grover Cleveland, who was president when the club was born: "The silly, mean and cowardly lies that every day are found in the columns of certain newspapers . . . violate every instinct of American manliness and . . . desecrate every sacred relation in private life."

Down through the years, most presidents have been equally complimentary in their feelings toward the press -- and we, toward them. But the historical skit Saturday night, drawn from the original scripts of past shows, confirmed that on Gridiron nights, when humor is supposed to serve as a vehicle for an exchange of barbs, the reporters and the politicians generally have dealt rather gently with each other's foibles.

We kidded William Howard Taft for his appetite ("Eating Through Georgia"), Herbert Hoover for his economics ("Rockabye Hoover on the tree top; when the wind blows, the market will drop."); John F. Kennedy for his rhetoric ("His wild Irish prose; it sparkles as it glows"); and Jerry Ford for his ties to corporate America ("Americard and Diners Club, Sears and Montgomery Ward. And Pontiac. And Cadillac. And good old Jerry Ford").

This year's jabs were equally light. The plight of the Democratic Party was captured by Warren Rogers, as party chairman Paul Kirk, singing of "the Democrat Infirmary Blues . . . (and) a party, so beat, so broke, so bare."

The Pentagon procurement scandals were epitomized by a general singing, "We found a million-dollar lug wrench, in a five-and-ten-cent store."

In the most skillful and barbed lyric, by John Hall, a Jim Baker impersonator sang:

"I spent four years in the White House

"As a most pragmatic man.

"When I couldn't fix programs Reagan might favor

"I favored the fix at hand."

All the good lines sting; none carries poison. Critics suggest the Gridiron dinner -- by reducing major issues to jokes, and bathing them in a spirit of camaraderie -- implies much too much coziness between reporters and politicians. But Robert M. Adams, the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and, previously, a distinguished archeologist at the University of Chicago, had a different reaction, on seeing this Washington tribal ritual for the first time.

"It defines the status of the press," he said, "but even more important, it defines the limits of what can be said by Republicans and Democrats about each other -- and about the press. It tends to pull everyone toward a standard of civility."

In the traditional phrase, repeated at the start of each year's dinner, "the Gridiron may singe, but it never burns." In a world of shuttered newspapers and shattered governments, that is no bad model.