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Gridiron Club to Political VIPs: Grin and Bear It

December 21, 2011

By Gwen Gibson

The Gridiron Club of Washington, D.C.—composed of 65 prominent journalists–has existed for 126 years, with one overriding objective–to lampoon the sitting president of the United States and other notable VIPs at its annual white tie dinner and satirical show. How and why this exclusive club survives and even thrives while newspapers struggle to stay alive is a curiosity worth exploring.

Granted, the club has lost a bit of its clout in recent years. President Obama skipped the club’s big spring dinner in 2009 and again in 2010, becoming the first president since Grover Cleveland to miss the first Gridiron dinner of his presidency. When he finally appeared and addressed the some 650 guests at the Gridiron’s 2011 spring dinner, held March 13, Obama delighted in poking fun at the club for clinging to old-time traditions.

“Look at this getup!” Obama said with a laugh as he looked down at his white tie attire. “Forget about winning the future. How about entering the present?”

The tribulations of all journalists were acknowledged later, with biting humor, at the Gridiron’s 2011 Winter Dinner, held December 3, when Susan Page, of USA Today and the 2011 Gridiron president, told the guests:

“We might as well admit it: We are the one percent. That is, the one percent of journalists who still have jobs.”

The Gridiron’s winter dinner, a black tie affair much smaller than the spring show, is given for members, their spouses and special guests. But “the mighty Gridiron chorus” performs skits—some repeats, some tryouts for the next spring show.

In one skit, a Hillary Clinton impersonator put new lyrics to an old familiar George
Gershwin song to announce

          I’m BIDEN my time

          ‘Cause that’s the kind of pol I’m

          While Joe gets in a tizzy

          I’ll be busy

          BIDEN my time….

Another member turned Lady Gaga’s song “I Was Born This Way” into a spoof of Mitt Romney, singing

          I used to be pro-choice

          But I’m pro-life today

          I’m on the right track, baby

          I can go both ways….

Traditionally, two prominent politicians, one Republican, one Democratic—address the winter dinner and spoof whomever they wish. The “honors” in 2011 went to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Newark, N.J. mayor Cory Booker.

Pawlenty gave the type of speech the Gridiron relishes, kidding himself and his own party. A former GOP presidential aspirant, the soft-spoken Pawlenty told the dinner guests that he dropped out of the race after Michele Bachman won the Iowa straw poll last August. “It bothers me a little to be beaten by Sarah Palin’s stunt double,” he confessed.

Since dropping out, he added, he has supported Mitt Romney, “because standing next to him, I’m the charismatic one.” In still another laugh line, he suggested that if Newt Gingrich wins the White House, “‘Hail to the Chief’ could be replaced by ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.”

Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, talked of how he differs from President Obama.  “He went to Harvard, I went to Yale. He was born in the USA, I was born in Washington, D.C.,” Booker said, taking a swipe at the District of Columbia’s lack of equal representation in Congress.

The Gridiron Club was formed in 1885 by Washington correspondents representing newspapers around the nation. From the start it was a social club created to spoof itself and lighten political tensions with humor that “singes but never burns.”

The first formal dinner was held Feb. 28, 1885, but President-elect  Grover Cleveland, who had icy relations with the press, did not attend this or any other Gridiron dinner while president.

In 1892, Benjamin Harrison, who enjoyed sparring with the press, became the first sitting president to attend a Gridiron dinner. Every president since Harrison has attended the spring dinner at least once while still in office. Some whom the press razzed relentlessly became loyal fans. Ronald Reagan attended the Gridiron spring dinner eight years in a row although he complained that he had to “sit on my keister” too long during the four-hour long dinner shows. George W. Bush attended the Gridiron six times. In 2008, at his last Gridiron appearance, W. slipped out of his head table seat and joined the Gridiron chorus on stage singing Auld Lang Syne.

Musical accompaniment for the Gridiron shows has been provided since the days of John Philip Sousa by the incredible Marine Band, “the President’s own,” thereby improving immeasurably the quality of the skits. The Gridiron has never used original music for its skits. The theory is that putting lyrics to popular songs of the day gives them more punch.

This certainly worked in 2007 when a Dick Cheney double sang “It’s Not Easy Being Mean” to Kermit’s song from the Muppets.

And it worked just as well back in 1962 when the Gridiron chorus serenaded the popular and articulate President John F. Kennedy with

His wild Irish prose

It sparkles as it glows

And make no mistake

There’s nothing can take

The bloom from that wild Irish prose….

 Lyndon B. Johnson was spoofed at a Gridiron show shortly after being photographed on his ranch lifting his dog by its ears. LBJ had mixed feelings about the club but he laughed when the chorus sang     

          Brown and white beagles

          With big floppy ears

          Depletion allowances, and prize winning steers

          Speed boats and barbecues, Texas oil kings

These are a few of his favorite things….

On rare occasions, tempers can flare at Gridiron shows. In a famous incident, at the 1933 dinner, President Roosevelt gobsmacked columnist H.L. Mencken, the opposition speaker, for his “most extreme and attention-getting opinions.” Mencken later wrote to friends: “I got in a bout with a High Personage at the dinner and was put to death with great barbarity. Fortunately, I revived immediately and am still full of sin.”

Normally, the skits by the club and speeches by the guests are received as harmless political parodies that help to relieve tensions when politics gets too strident.

At the 1975 dinner, President Gerald R. Ford, told the 600 guests that since moving into the White House he had learned “how much of a life-saving medicine a little laughter is for presidents.” He added: “If a fine evening of fun and friendship like this is good for Presidents, it must also be good for America.”

In his speech at the 2011 spring dinner, President Obama also supported the club and the media in general. But he took a different tack, suggesting they are necessary nuisances.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in positions of power may have our gripes about how the media covers us,” Obama said, “but it’s only because your job is to hold us accountable. And none of us would want to live in a country without that fail safe.”

You can be certain the members and guests drank a toast to that one.

From → Events

  1. Craig permalink

    Nice stuff. I laughed the loudest at Pawlenty’s jokes. Unusually funny for a Republican. It would be interesting to hear some of Nixon’s jokes.

  2. Lovely piece, Gwen. I remember my one and only Gridiron experience due to your and Grant’s largesse — loved it. Loved the bit about Mencken, and the crack about the 1%. Alas, too true.
    Keep up the good work. Joanna

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