There’s a concept called “nostalgia for the future”: a yearning hope that what’s to come might be as comforting as the warm and fuzzy parts of the past. So it is in Washington, where — always, but especially now — the A-list crowd nurtures a persistent and stubborn belief that everything is going to be all right.
After a two-year absence, the Gridiron Club hosted its 137th dinner Saturday night with the profound desire that the pandemic, two presidential impeachment trials and an attack on the U.S. Capitol have not permanently ruptured this country. So there was both shock and relief when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, the Republican speaker for the night, weighed in on Donald Trump.
“He’s f---ing crazy,” Sununu said to laughter and applause — and, notably, no booing.
“I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution,” he added. “But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.”
Sununu’s speech was probably the first time the f-bomb was dropped on this white-tie gathering of political, media and business elite, and it didn’t come a moment too soon. The room was desperate for a return to normal — and not just a farewell to masks and social distancing, but also a homecoming to the belief that Republicans and Democrats of good faith can still get together and laugh.
“We hope we’re a link between the way we were and the way we can be again — somehow,” said Tom DeFrank, the club’s president, in his welcoming speech. “We need good humor and good fellowship. And more than ever, we need the unity that can come from both.”
With 630 guests, the Gridiron dinner is the more intimate precursor of the better-known White House Correspondents’ Association gathering. What started in the 19th century as a small dinner with politicians and the men who covered the nation’s capital evolved into an exclusive evening of power brokers making fun of both political parties. For more than 100 years, every president — including Trump — has addressed the Gridiron.
President Biden did not attend this year. He did send a video that was in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the evening. “I get the sense even if I’m not at the dinner,” the president said, “I’m going to be on the menu.”
Only two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine (who is not part of the MAGA wing) and Roy Blunt of Missouri (who is not seeking reelection) attended the dinner. Not a single GOP House member showed up. If you shout fake news enough, then mingling with reporters at a white-tie dinner is not going to sit well with the base.
The VIPs who did attend arrived at the Renaissance Washington hotel in droves: Attorney General Merrick Garland and several other Cabinet members; press secretary Jen Psaki, about to depart for a new gig at MSNBC; New York Mayor Eric Adams (D); Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell; Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver; and Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who received a standing ovation. The guest list also included Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Reps. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and Debbie Dingell (Mich.).
The night opened with a tribute to Ukraine by the house band and salutes to the military branches by the Marine Band, including a rendition of the Space Force anthem. (Who knew?) Journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff introduced the dignitaries and made reference to the other big event happening that evening. “I thought this was the Duke-Carolina game,” cracked Woodruff. (The informal rules of the Gridiron prohibit guests from posting on social media until after the dinner, but they say nothing about checking game scores.)
This club revels in the comfort of the familiar: corny jokes, off-key singing, skits lampooning the politics of the moment. Each party gets a “response”: Sununu spoke on behalf of the Republicans, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.) the Democrats — and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo the administration, who bemoaned that she was advised to tell self-deprecating jokes.
“Self-deprecating jokes? No one knows who I am,” said Raimondo, nailing the assignment even as she mocked it.
The performances were presented by veteran reporters who cover Washington. There are sketches parodying figures in both parties, and it’s always a bellwether to see who gets the sharpest jabs. In the portion of the evening focused on Republicans, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.) were depicted as “The Morons on Our Team,” sung to the Addams Family theme song. In “Thank God I’m a Harvard Boy” (sung to the tune of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”), actors playing an array of Republican alums of the university — former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) — came onstage in overalls and flannel shirts, pretending to be cornpone hayseeds instead of Harvard grads.
But the night’s showstopper struck at the heart of the club’s dilemma: If its nostalgic hope for Washington is based on the idea that both parties are committed enough to the shared values of truth, civility and the rule of law to enjoy each other’s company, what if the actual future is four more years of Trump?
A Trump look-a-like strode onstage, wearing a crown and robe, and cooed “I’ll Be Back” (a “Hamilton” parody).
I’ll be back, soon you’ll see.
You’ll remember you belong to me.
I’ll be back in ‘24.
You’ll be sorry that you showed me the door.
Biden lost, MAGA won.
The election still can be undone.
And when push comes to shove,
I will send a lightly armed militia
To remind you of my love.
Then came Sununu, the Republican notable for his willingness to take on Trump, Cruz and the MyPillow guy.
None of the sketches about Democrats captured the same existential dread as did the sendups of Republicans. They were aimed at more familiar targets: Biden’s age and sinking polls, liberal budget-busting, Nancy Pelosi’s unwillingness to give up the speaker’s gavel, Sen. Joe Manchin III’s unwillingness to do ... well, pretty much anything his party wants. A faux Fauci sang from the stage to the real Fauci in the audience: “Doctor, doctor, give me some clues, we’ve got a bad case of covid blues.”
Raskin’s meteoric rise — thanks to his prosecution during Trump’s second impeachment trial — prompted the Gridiron to invite him to give the Democratic response.
He began with an aside to Sununu. “That was a total riot, by which I mean a normal tourist visit,” Raskin said. “I haven’t heard a Republican use the f-word that much since the Nixon administration.”
Then he shifted tone: “But I’ve got to say that Governor Sununu’s eloquent profanity is the kind of insurrection the GOP really needs today. If democracy is going survive, it’s going to take a lot more people like the great governor of New Hampshire.”
Raskin is an earnest guy at heart. Most of his jokes fell flat. But the congressman finished up with a sly kicker. “It’s a wonderful sign for the future when a dozen Democrats and two Republicans can assemble together in solidarity and friendship.”
The night ended, as it always does, with a toast to the president of the United States and with the audience holding hands and singing “Auld Lang Syne”:
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for days of auld lang syne.
The past is prologue — at least it was in this place, on this night.