War Brought A Somber Note To Gridiron Club

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

THE Gridiron Club of Washington was faced with one of its biggest problems in more than 100 years of putting public figures on the griddle at its annual spring dinner: Should there be a show if the war in the Gulf was still going on? In early February Secretary of State James Baker called to say he simply couldn't deliver a humorous speech while our country was at war. The prospect of a quick end to the fighting appeared to be dim. The Gridiron show seemed destined for cancellation - as in the spring after Pearl Harbor. As president of the club, I decided that we should continue full speed ahead and be ready to go on March 23 should peace suddenly break out.

Club members might, quite understandingly, have refused to get involved in a show that had such a faint chance of ever being staged. But instead they gave more than full support to the go-ahead decision, and participated energetically in the preparation for a show that could well turn out to be a no-show.

Production of the show was in the very capable hands of club vice president and music chairman Dan Thomasson of Scripps Howard News Service, ably assisted by journalist Phil Geyelin. Susan Page of Newsday produced the Democratic skit; Alan Emory of the Watertown Daily Times put the Republican skit into shape; and John Hall of the Media General News Service put together the show's opener and closer.

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Against the backdrop of uncertainty they pushed forward. But reference to the war was omitted, and jibes were related exclusively to domestic issues.

Then the war ended quickly, astonishingly so, and the Gridiron Club was ready to go. Some program revisions were necessary; some new songs inserted. But we were ready! You could hear the joy as the chorus practiced its new opener, which hailed the feats of Generals Schwarzkopf and Powell to the tune of "Alexander's Ragtime Band:"

Come on along, come on along,

And give a cheer for Desert Storm.

Each guy and gal, of Colin Powell,

And ev'ry troop of Stormin' Norm.

And if you want to send a message to

The boys in Baghdad,

Come on along, come on along,

With Stormin' Norman's desert band.

One Gridiron-show veteran said he had never seen people that were "more up, more eager to laugh and cheer." It was, indeed, more of a celebration than simply an entertainment.

At one point, laughter filled the Capital Hilton Hotel ballroom as two figures appeared on the stage and consoled each other with their explanations of what befell them in Iraq. An actor portraying US Ambassador April Glaspie sang to "April in Paris": "April in Baghdad, Saddam was beastly. State said to tell him 'Everything's fine.' " In response someone portraying Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming sang: "Baghdad in April, doing my own thing, I found that Saddam's my kind of guy."

There was a sober side to the evening, with one speaker reminding the audience of the agony that President Bush had to have undergone during the war, "a reminder that we are all giving thought to tonight in the midst of all this levity."

"We meet in a moment of triumph - and of gratitude to our valiant armed forces," the speaker said. "We all join in the hope that peace, a lasting peace, is now dawning."

And at the end of the evening, the audience, including President and Mrs. Bush, along with the other administration, congressional, military, diplomatic, gubernatorial, industrial, and publishing guests heard the specially written lyrics (by Gridironer John Hall) for Jay Ungar's melody Ashokan Farewell - the plaintive background fiddle music of the PBS series, "The Civil War."

The lyrics paid tribute to "each lad, to each lass sent forth with our burden" and ended with the chorus:

We sing with just one voice

Till you're safely home.

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