George H.W. Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, talks about the Watergate case as Robert Strauss, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, listens during a joint appearance before the National Press Club in Washington. (AP)
Columnist

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when U.S. presidents liked journalists — or at least pretended to like them.

“Washington obviously was a much smaller, less formal place then,” said Gil Klein, who heads the History and Heritage Committee at the National Press Club.

A couple of weeks ago, Gil, an American University journalism professor and former national correspondent for Media General, delivered a lecture on the history of the press club, which was founded in 1908 as a place for journalists to drink and play cards.

No one plays cards anymore, and these days journalists drink at home, alone, their cocktails salted with their tears, but a century ago, newspapers were a booming business, and downtown D.C.’s Newspaper Row was lousy with ink-stained wretches. The Western Union office was there, so correspondents could easily wire their dispatches to out-of-town journals.

The National Press Club’s founders rented two floors above a jewelry store at 1205 F St. NW, the first of several buildings the group occupied before settling down in 1928 in its current building at 14th and F streets NW.

William Howard Taft was the first sitting president who came by,” said Gil. That was in 1910. “He just walked up the stairs and said he was in the neighborhood and wanted to meet the neighbors.”

Woodrow Wilson had been a member even before he moved into the White House. When he was president, Wilson would occasionally bring his entire Cabinet over.

“I believe he said it was the one club he could go to unwind,” Gil said. “That seems hard to imagine. Can you imagine Trump coming over, saying ‘I think I’ll go over and unwind with the boys’?”

Franklin D. Roosevelt came often, Gil said. It was FDR who kicked off the regular series of gatherings featuring speeches by lofty figures, as well as those hoping to become lofty.

“After Roosevelt, members said, ‘We ought to just have a series of luncheons with newsmakers,” said Gil, who was president of the club in 1994.

Those early events had the sort of cozy blind-eye-turning that aren’t supposed to occur anymore: What happened in the National Press Club stayed in the National Press Club.

“Back then, these things were off the record,” Gil said. “It’s frustrating. I would find an account of an event in The Washington Post and it would go on and on about the decorations and who was there, then say, ‘The remarks were off the record.’ I want to know what he said.”

As with most of official and fraternal Washington at the time, the press club was slow to open its ranks to minorities and women. The first African American member was Louis R. Lautier of the Atlanta Daily World and the National Negro Press Association, admitted in 1955.

Female journalists in Washington had formed their own club — the Women’s National Press Club — in 1919, but they lobbied for the right to attend events at the males-only press club, arguing they should have access to the news that might be made there.

Talk about incremental progress: In 1955, the club said female journalists could cover the luncheons, but only from the ballroom balcony. In 1964, women were allowed onto the ballroom floor. They were finally admitted as full members in 1971.

Other firsts: The National Press Club has District liquor license No. 1, issued shortly after Prohibition was repealed. After FDR changed the bankruptcy laws in the 1930s, the press club was also the first entity to file for bankruptcy protection.

Gerald Ford was a regular at the club. He’d started visiting as a congressman and kept it up as veep and POTUS. (“He’s the only one who really sincerely liked journalists,” Gil said.) In 1982, Ronald Reagan stopped by to swear in the press club’s first female president, Vivian Vahlberg of the Daily Oklahoman.

Bill Clinton attended an event there in 1998. But since then, things haven’t been so presidential. Obama and the Bushes? “They all came before they were president,” Gil said. “It just became so formal and so adversarial and so much security and so many other outlets, that the presidents don’t come by like they used to.”

Donald Trump stopped by in 2014, before he announced his candidacy.

Maybe Trump could take part in the National Press Club’s annual politicians-vs.-journalists spelling bee, a tradition that began in 1913 when Ohio Republican Frank B. Willis won by correctly spelling “hydrocephalus.”

A sitting chief executive competing in a spelling bee at the National Press Club? That would be unprecedented.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.