Nine years after he made his Gridiron Club dinner debut as a fresh-faced young senator, President Obama took the podium again Saturday night, sounding wistful about the passage of time.
“Just a few years ago I could never imagine being in my fifties,” he mused. “And when it comes to my approval ratings, I still can’t.”
Ahhh, but seriously, folks. Remember, he told the white-tie crowd of elite journalists, when he was considered the tech-savvy hipster in the executive mansion? But now, “Hillary has a server in her house!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t even know you could have one of those. I am so far behind.”
Only in Washington does this scene not necessarily strike people as strange: Hundreds of reporters hobnobbing with the government officials they normally cover in an evening of fine dining and parody songs that make Weird Al Yankovic seem hip. Oh, and even though it’s an event thrown by a group of journalists, guests are told not to spoil the fun by publishing anything.
But that’s the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner, a tradition of goofy skits, silly songs and music by the United States Marine Band that has remained virtually unchanged since 1885.The night, at its core, is unabashedly sentimental — the main objective is to promote “good fellowship.”
The president — speaking at the dinner for a third time as president, fourth time overall — told the room that Democrats had determined they needed to do better with older white voters.
“Which is why I’m here,” he said. And if the crowd laughed harder at his jokes than for his last visit in 2013?
“I’m not saying I’m any funnier,” he said. “I’m saying weed is now legal in D.C.”
The dinner is a love letter to a Washington that never really existed — a romanticized place where politicians, despite all the squabbling, share an abiding respect for each other, the press and the political process. If it was ever true, it’s certainly not now — but it must be nice to pretend for a few hours.
Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this night, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker makes a joke about Hillary Clinton, it’s not part of a future negative ad campaign.
“I really do have a lot of close friends who are Democrats,” said Walker, serving as the official Republican speaker for the evening. “I even have Hillary’s private e-mail . . . It’s HillaryClinton@Wallstreet.com. You know the best part of that joke, Elizabeth Warren wrote it for me.”
Big laughs all around, even though soon enough half the room will be out to get him. And it didn’t take long for someone to get retribution. But only jokingly of course.
“I’m sure Governor Walker has some really neat accomplishments,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the official Democratic speaker for the night. “I mean, it’s literally been years since his own constituents tried to recall him.”
Obama also got in on the Walker-tweaking, if mostly to arm himself with the classic after-dinner-speaker charm tactic of gentle self-deprecation:
“[Walker] punted on the question of evolution, which I do think is a problem,” Obama said. “I absolutely believe in the theory of evolution — when it comes to gay marriage.”
Walker, too, went out of his way to show the media crowd that he can laugh at himself — the incentive for so many pols to show up at these kinds of dinner — making repeated jokes about his failure to graduate from Marquette University.
“My goal tonight is to speak for 10 minutes,” he said. “But don’t worry. Once I get three-quarters of the way through, I’ll drop out.”
With a guest list of 650 — a fraction the size of the much-hyped White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — Gridiron is arguably a far more coveted ticket within Beltway circles. Gridiron is also the most insular of the city’s press dinners. None of the speakers have to play to C-SPAN or CNN cameras, so they keep it for Washington, by Washington, with insider jokes designed for VIP political junkies who breathlessly parse every off-hand aside for hidden meaning.
And if that’s not you? Well, at least. . . .
“This is great people watching,” said Aneta Bazzie, a visitor here for an unrelated event — a conference of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials — as the crowd of famous-for-Washington types, dressed to the nines, paraded past her into the Washington Renaissance Hotel.
“Who’s that?” her friend Susan Gillette asked, pointing at Andrea Mitchell in a sparkling ball gown.
“Who’s that?” Bazzie asked about political scion/MSNBC personality Abby Huntsman. “You should write down she is wearing a nice dress.”
“Who’s that?” Gillette asked about Democratic ad maker Mark Putnam, and then about former Senator Ben Nelson, and then about Valerie Jarrett.
“Oh I know you!” Bazzie says running up to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, and pointing to her sweatshirt bearing the name of their shared home state. “We’re from West Virginia.” All politics is local.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest broke away from a conversation with Politico reporter Mike Allen to head into the dinner. “It’ll be all right,” he predicted. “Everything’s in better form when the president’s here.”
It was Obama’s third appearance at Gridiron since becoming president; he originally seemed to avoid such Beltway traditions but apparently has raised his tolerance for them.
He was joined by an array of guests that included Cabinet members, congressmen, diplomats; baseball legend Hank Aaron; TV news personalities Wolf Blitzer, Gayle King and Chris Matthews; and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“I’m just going to sit quietly and hope the president doesn’t notice me,” said possible Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. He was on his way to change into his tux in the gym, when the hotel’s general manager spotted him and gave him a free room for the evening.
Not at the dinner: Supposed 2016 frontrunners Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. (Walker joked that the Gridiron Club “couldn’t afford her.”)
But oh, she was present in spirit. The controversy over Clinton’s private e-mail account is exactly the kind of personality-driven saga that Gridiron loves to mock in its ever-corny song skits. To the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” naturally:
Oh the muckrackers’ll rake, rake, rake, rake, rake
Harvard law professors’ bleeding hearts will ache
Don’t need you so I’ll take, take, take, take, take
Take you out, take you out.
Or at least that’s what we’re told they did. One of the many peculiarities of the event is that the 65 members of Gridiron represent some of the most influential editors and political reporters in the nation’s capital — and yet the dinner is closed to the press who would cover it. Which means this story, as always, is cobbled together from a viewing of the dress rehearsal, glimpses of the script, transcripts from helpful staffers and the damp cocktail-napkin scribblings of sympathetic guests.
The skits are a mixture of hokey and slick, the journalists dressed in elaborate costumes but often bolstered by strong-voiced ringers for the song parodies. There were male reporters playing Colombian prostitutes in a Secret Service skit. There were puns and bad jokes but nothing damning: The same reporters who appear on Sunday morning talk shows decrying the letter GOP senators sent to Iran had nothing to say about it on stage.
That fell to the president. “You don’t diminish your office by taking a selfie,” he said. “You do it by sending a poorly written letter to Iran. Really. That wasn’t a joke.”
The humor can be broad. There was a skit portraying the massive field of Republican presidential aspirants, all dressed in marathon garb: Rick Perry was portrayed as a dunce, Ben Carson insane, Rand Paul an overreaching know-it-all, Scott Walker a drop-out, Rick Santorum an egomaniac, Mike Huckabee an opportunist, and Jeb Bush as a guy saddled with an unfortunate moniker (sung to the Wizard of Oz’s “If I Only Had a Brain”):
No matter what a man inherits
You should judge him on the merits
Not his much too famous name
Just because he’s presumin’
That he could be a new man
If he had another name.
And the Koch brothers were portrayed as ultimate king makers (to the classic Coke commercial tune):
We’d like to buy the world for Koch
There’s a billion we will spend
We pay to play in the USA
So freedom doesn’t end.
The midterm shellacking of the Democrats was mocked with Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere”:
We lost everywhere, man
We lost everywhere, man
Not just out Senate lair, man
We did not have a prayer, man
We’re in need of some repair, man
We lost everywhere.
Are you beginning to get the picture? There were nods to Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, gay marriage, the Secret Service and McAuliffe, who was called “most ambitious man alive” in a song poking his quest for higher office (to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”):
Don’t stop thinking about McAuliffe
He’d stop at nothing to win
His whole life, American dream
National race his ultimate scheme.
But as any politician will tell you, it’s better to be mocked than ignored. (Oddly, no mention of Marco Rubio, despite what looks like a serious campaign ramp-up. And Bobby Jindal? We hardly knew ye.) There was, as always, a toast to the president and the entire room linking arms and singing “Auld Lang Syne.” A fantasy, like Cinderella’s, that always ends by midnight.
SCROLL DOWN for more photos from the Gridiron Club Dinner