Washington’s Gridiron Club, with its 65 journalist members, held its 132nd anniversary dinner Saturday night with 620 journalists, media executives, lawmakers, and administration officials crowded into a DC hotel ballroom for the dinner and musical show.
I attended three Gridiron dinners and what always seemed most memorable were the journalists in white-tie, looking like extras in a movie about the Gilded Age, and the Marine Corps Band playing the anthems of the four service branches. When the anthem of each service is played, those who have served in that branch stand at attention.
Each year fewer of those at the dinner stand. Last year one of the journalist attendees estimated that maybe 30 of the 620 attendees had been in the military. My source for that estimate didn’t attend this year’s dinner—he said there’s nothing to laugh about this year—so I asked another journalist how many stood Saturday night. He said, “I didn’t count, but the diminished number was noticeable enough that my guests and I commented on it.”
At the dinners I attended most of those standing for the military anthems were, like me, over 60 and either nearing retirement or already there. For all the talk in recent years of needing more minorities in journalism—no argument there—you rarely hear much about drawing more military veterans into journalism.
I went in the Air Force in the 1950s and for me it was more of an education than four years of college and year of law school. When I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, I was surprised that none of the guys I lived and marched with were at all like those in Wisconsin I’d grown up with. Basic training was tough, a shock to the system, and we learned to accept our differences and get along.
As you move on from basic, you’re smart to keep your mouth shut until it’s the right time to talk and you have something to say. If you pay attention, you figure out how things are done and how you survive and maybe do well. Looking back, I think having to deal with all kinds of people in pressure situations helps you develop a bullshit detector.
One of the most successful Washington businessmen I’ve known never went to college and he credited his three years in the Air Force with giving him the confidence and savvy to deal with and understand all kinds of people. He figured basic training and his two years overseas were the equivalent of a master’s degree in what people—including those who voted for Donald Trump—are really like.
As for Saturday night’s dinner, here’s a rundown provided by the Gridiron Club:
Official Washington took a brief break Saturday night for the serious business of the 132nd anniversary dinner of the Gridiron Club and Foundation. Vice President Mike Pence headlined the event, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi representing the Democrats and Iowa Senator Joni Ernst speaking for the Republicans.
The annual dinner takes a humorous look at the political scene and this year it comes at a time of unusual tension between the press corps and a president.
“We will not and cannot hide the contentious relationship right now between the President and the press,” club president Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, said in the kick-off speech.
“Tomorrow morning, we will be back on the frontlines fighting for access and explanations and calling it as we see it. Because whoever the President is. . .we think our job is pretty clear.
“Our job is to make the President’s life. . .a living. . .embodiment of what a free and responsible press can and should be. That is in the greatest of American traditions. Tonight, though, is also about another American tradition. The tradition that we have to be able to laugh at ourselves,” Sweet said.
The Gridiron Club has invited every president since Grover Cleveland to speak. Vice President Joe Biden filled in for President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2016, as did Bill Clinton in 2010, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2012, and Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.
Gridiron has been delivering “fake news” for over a century in skits skewering Washington, the president of the day, and political parties. This year’s show portrayed Democrats as hapless, and poked fun at the Trump administration’s “alternative reality,” wealthy cabinet members and relations with Russia.
The press corps itself was not spared, with lyrics that reflected the media’s astonishment at the election outcome and its frustration that “misstatements never rained on us like sleet before” — even as it scrambles to book White House officials for TV shows.
With Pelosi and Ernst at the head table, this was the first time in club history that both party main speakers have been women.
• Three members of President Trump’s Cabinet: the secretaries of transportation, veterans affairs, and of housing and urban development.
• One governor, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire.
• Eight senators: Ernst, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Cornyn of Texas, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Luther Strange of Alabama, and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
• Seven House members: Pelosi, Darrell Issa and Adam Schiff of California, Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee of Michigan, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and John Delaney of Maryland.
• White House officials Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer.
• Eight ambassadors, two former secretaries of state, one former defense secretary, and three former White House press secretaries, along with Ford Motor Co. chief executive Mark Fields, and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
In the opening number, a cast member playing Hillary Clinton vented about her exile to suburbia since losing the White House (to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”):
Gawd I hate Chappaqua, it’s such a bore, a fright!
It would be paradise by the White House lights.
Yeah it’s cold and lonely. It just sucks, alright?
Paradise, it’s all theirs tonight.
Later, in the Democratic skit, “Clinton” sang a lament pointing fingers at her campaign manager, along with Anthony Weiner, Bernie Sanders, husband Bill, and the Russians (to the tune of “Eleanor Rigby”):
Vladimir rigged it. Hacked our accounts
With fake news that nobody could prove
… Media bought it, turned on me
Just as the voters were starting to buy
John Dickerson, host of CBS’s Face the Nation, played Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer trying to figure out how to cope with President Trump. Playing guitar, he crooned to Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change (or I’m Gonna Leave)”:
We gotta throw some undesirables beneath the bus
Tell educated folk to quit supporting us
We need more votes, I don’t care whose
We gotta change or we’re-a gonna lose
In an adaption of the party’s 2016 convention anthem (“Fight Song”), Democrats lament:
This is our plight song
Should we move right? song
We need more whites soo-ong
We always turn wrong
In the Republican skit, Fox News anchor Bret Baier sang a solo as Michael Flynn — the National Security Adviser fired after just 24 days:
I got thrown out, soon as I got in
There’s no one faster than the Mighty Flynn
Did all I could, with just one sin
The land speed record goes to Michael Flynn
A cast member playing Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway pleaded with journalists to “take our dictation with alternative facts.” Another playing chief strategist Steve Bannon cited some of history’s most notorious courtiers as role models (to the tune of “Cockeyed Optimist”):
Torquemada, Rasputin, yes and Cromwell.
Mister Trump never heard of them, they’re dead.
Shall I tell him these mummified arsonists
Wrote the script that I play in his head?
Trump’s penchant for stocking the Cabinet with 1 percenters inspired a song to a tune from “Fiddler on the Roof”:
We’re a bunch of rich men
Cutting, cutting, cutting cutting taxes on the rich
Our disclosure form’s a mile long
We’re a bunch of wealthy man.
One skit poked fun at President Trump over Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s meddling in the election last fall (set to a Czech children’s song, “Aj Lučka, Lučka Široká”):
We hacked your emails, Da, da, da
DNC was porous, Wikileaks was for us
Got rid of Hillary, Ha, ha, ha
Trumpkin’s my new comrade you will see, ha!
We fix election so Trump can win
He gets a bear hug from Czar Pu-tin
The Gridiron Club and Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization that provides contributions for college scholarships and journalistic organizations.
Active membership is limited to 65 Washington-based journalists. Seven new members were initiated at the dinner: Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor, Todd Gillman of the Dallas Morning News, Julie Pace of Associated Press, James Rosen of Fox News, Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, and Pierre Thomas of ABC News.