Perry in Washington last month. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The crash-and-burn candidate (“the weakest Republican field in history, and they kicked my butt!”) was the unexpected comedic star of Saturday night’s Gridiron Club dinner. At the white-tie conclave at the downtown Renaissance Hotel, Perry acknowledged a multitude of gaffes. Yeah, sure, he once claimed the American Revolution happened in the 16th century. But, “they call the 1500s the 16th century, the 1600s the 17th century ... See, there’s a flaw in the system!

“All of this could have been avoided if they started counting the first year at 100,” he added. Though “that would have made Jesus a hundred when he was born.”

The self-deprecating shtick could only last so long. At the Gridiron — the most insidery of media-insider dinners — the tradition is to pick on the other guy, and by consensus, this was a Beat Up On Mitt Romney kind of night.

It felt like Beat Up On Mitt Romney Night at the Gridiron dinner, which the GOP frontrunner did not attend. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)

The other, brilliantly obvious. Tired of gags about Seamus, the Irish setter who long ago rode in a carrier atop the Romney family car? Sorry, there was a song just screaming out for Gridirony: “Up on the Roof,” by the Drifters.

When Romney world starts getting me down

And people are too much for me to face

I climb way up to the top of the car

And all my cares just drift right into space.

It was sung by a man in a dog suit, a cardboard station wagon slung around his hips. He was John E. Mulligan, the strong-voiced Washington correspondent for the Providence Journal and one of the 65 top-tier journalists who make up the Gridiron.

Why no video, no photo of this amazing sight? The bizarre thing about this journalist-hosted dinner is that journalists covering the event aren’t allowed in. Our account of the night is based on leaked transcripts, dinner-napkin scribblings, and our sanctioned glimpse of a musical dress rehearsal.

The lack of cameras is either a blessing or a curse for the 127-year-old event. Has it lost some buzz, not being televised like the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner? President Obama clears his calendar for that one (granted, they’re the journalists he wrassles with regularly), but parcels himself out more sparingly to the other big Beltway elite dinners. Last year, he made his first Gridiron appearance since elected, and it was pretty well understood he wouldn’t show up again this soon.

Instead of POTUS, the 650 dinner guests heard from the administration’s designated sub, stand-in Leon Panetta, who kept the Romney jabs gentle. (“DoD recently completed a 65-year project to develop a cutting-edge robot. Initial testing wasn’t good, but Mitt Romney’s performance is improving.”)

Wasserman Schultz in 2011. (Jeff Siner/AP)

On having sympathy for John Boehner: “Trust me, I know what it’s like to have Eric Cantor breathing down your neck. That’s why I stopped using JDate.”

On her bafflement with the birth control debate: “That’s probably because I’m Jewish. In our religion, we don’t consider a fetus to be viable until after it’s graduated from medical school.”

On the new breasts she got after a cancer battle and mastectomy. “I like to call them my ‘silver linings.’ Some people who know my story ask: ‘Debbie, are they fake?’ I say, hell yes they’re fake. The real ones tried to kill me. The fake ones feel very real. At least that’s what the TSA agents tell me.”

She dinged Romney only lightly (“you know what you call a Republican primary where Mitt stands alone? A two-man race.”), for it seemed to be Rick Perry’s night to throw those bombs:

“Yes, I would say stuff like ‘Solyndra is a country,’ or ‘The voting age is 21,’ ” the governor acknowledged. “Mitt would say things like, his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs, or his pals own NASCAR teams. My problem was saying stuff that wasn’t right. Mitt’s problem is saying stuff that is.”

Oooh! “You know, it was weird standing next to him at the debates. I kept waiting for him to say, ‘Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?’” That one broke up the room.

But seriously, folks: “I like Mitt Romney as much as one really good-looking man can like another really good-looking man — without breaking the law in Texas.”

This story, originally published 4 a.m. Sunday, was updated and expanded Sunday evening..
Read related editorial: Wise up, Gridiron Club, or lose your cachet, 3/21/12

Read earlier: Obama gets laughs at first Gridiron Club dinner as president, 3/13/11

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