IN the spring in Washington, an event takes place that has been described variously -- the Gridiron Club's annual white-tie dinner and show. It is a roast of public figures by the working journalists who make up the club. Most personages, like President Reagan and Clark Clifford, love it. Both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson came to hate it and to avoid it when their performance in the presidency opened them up to satire.
Yet, on balance, this spring rite is good for Washington. The laughter is good for everyone. Indeed, a kind of healing takes place which, it can be argued, makes the democratic process work just a little better.
For example, a Gridironer playing Nancy Reagan sang, to the tune ``Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets'':
Whatever Nancy wants
That's what they say,
But we know it's not true.
I simply want
What Ronnie aims for.
And I pass the word,
Who gets the blame for.
If Donald Regan spoke out of school,
I'd only say to him, real cool,
Soon the President, getting his turn, was calling Mrs. Reagan to the podium and asking her to ``say something nice about the press. Anything, a word. Just a word.'' Nancy just stood there, saying nothing.
The President kept imploring her to ``say something.'' Finally, after a long pause, she said: ``I'm thinking! I'm thinking!''
The quips moved back and forth among the head-table guests, too.
Of the President, Sen. Edward Kennedy said: ``By the way, I do notice the fact that President Reagan keeps on quoting President Kennedy. Just the other day, he did it again -- `Ich bin ein `Contra.' '' Mr. Kennedy added: ``People here may be sharply divided over the Reagan administration's policies -- but they admire Ronald Reagan for not getting involved in them.''
The President got back at Kennedy.
Referring to Kennedy's waistline, he joked: ``You know they say Teddy's moving toward the middle. Of course, on Teddy everything is moving toward the middle.''
White House chief of staff Donald Regan used the clever device, once employed successfully by Nancy Reagan at an earlier Gridiron show, of disarming critics by poking fun at oneself. ``I do identify with the wisdom of that sensitive philosopher and car dealer, Lee Iacocca,'' he joshed, ``who said, `If only I had a little humility, I'd be perfect!' ''
Then in a very confidential tone Mr. Regan added: ``And related to that, people often ask me how Sam Donaldson can be so abrasive and overbearing. Well, tonight I can reveal for the first time . . . SAM DONALDSON IS MY SON!''
The showstopper was when Gridiron impersonators of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos took center stage, she pulling scores of shoes behind her and he singing, to ``Side By Side'':
Oh, we shipped out a barrel of money,
Billions for me and my honey.
So we'll travel along
Kicking the gong,
Side by side.
There was much more. And, when all this nonsense was over, Washington was the better off for it.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.