More than 600 people were scheduled to attend Saturday’s white-tie dinner at Washington’s Renaissance Hotel, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien Jr., who was to represent President Trump, along with Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). All three were slated to give remarks — traditionally the president or a surrogate and a Republican and a Democrat each speak — during the evening of bipartisanship schmoozing and political sketches.
But the rapidly escalating health crisis caused members to reconsider attending this time. Many of the club members are older, as are their VIP guests. On Tuesday, The Washington Post pulled out and asked its Gridiron members — who include senior political reporters and columnists — to skip the event.
“As important as this evening is, I think it’s difficult to justify the risks associated with a large public gathering for Post employees and their guests,” said Post publisher Fred Ryan, who added the costs of the seats would now be considered a donation to organization. At the time of the cancellation, no other media organizations had formally dropped out, but it was probably inevitable, Gilbert said.
Beyond the health consideration was the more nuanced issue of perception: Can Washington’s media elites gather for a lighthearted evening in the midst of a global health crisis? The answer: Not this year.
“We’ve always taken the view that it’s appropriate to have political humor even when times are dark,” said Gilbert. ‘That includes when we’ve been at war or politically divided. The difference with coronavirus is the health issue.”
The Gridiron dinner goes back to 1885 and has been canceled only twice before: Once during World War I and once during World War II, according to Gilbert. (Although he doesn’t know the exact years.) The idea was for newspapermen — and it was all men for many years — to invite their political sources for an off-the-record evening of food, drink and humor. Political sketches were performed by the journalists with various degrees of talent wearing ridiculous costumes. Each political party got a ribbing, although the jokes have traditionally been more corny than cutting.
The night is an ode to the idea that politicians and the press share an abiding respect for their country — and therefore each other. The dinner always ends with the crowd linking arms and singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
More importantly, it has served as the launchpad for rising political stars, a welcoming place for current presidents eager to charm the press and an Inside-the-Beltway pep rally for past and future legends. Nancy Reagan famously used a surprise turn on the Gridiron stage to mock her image as a designer clotheshorse by performing “Second Hand Rose” while wearing secondhand clothes.
Last year’s attendees included Ivanka Trump, who joked that “being Donald Trump’s daughter” was the hardest job in the world, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and a number of the president’s cabinet.
This year, the sketches — written over the past couple months — concentrated on impeachment, Russians and other political flash points. There were no sketches or songs about the coronavirus, and the situation was so fluid that there was no discussion of whether it was in good taste (or not) to make jokes about it. “We hadn’t even crossed that bridge or grappled with that yet,” said Gilbert.
The answer, as it turned out, was no. There was nothing to laugh about.
With the cancellation of the Gridiron dinner, there’s already speculation about the much larger White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 25. The annual gathering announced it was returning to its roots with comedians Kenan Thompson of “Saturday Night Live” and Hasan Minhaj of “Patriot Act” performing for a crowd of 2,500 Washington political and media A-listers. Organizers have seven weeks to decide.