From a Gridiron Neophyte's Notebook

THE biggest surprise for this first-timer at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington the other week was the ambient noise level. Even the boomingest voices in the room had to struggle to be heard over the din. It was a little disappointing not to have had more serious discussion of weighty issues with the movers and shakers of the nation's capital. But had it been otherwise, it wouldn't have been such a good microcosm of American political life. The Gridiron dinner is an annual "roast" of the administration and Congress by the senior Washington press corps, with platoons of the famous and not-so-famous in attendance from the worlds of politics and journalism. The dinner is a sort of national joke book, the source of punchlines and quips that get fed into the memories of the people, even the millions that have never heard of the Gridiron and think reporters are obnoxious anyway.

For instance, President Kennedy's oft-repeated joke on himself and his family's money - his father told him to buy not one more vote than was needed in a certain primary, because he had "no intention of paying for a landslide" - was a Gridiron joke.

Along with skits by members of the press corps (with some professional reinforcements), the Gridiron show also includes speeches by a Democrat and a Republican, respectively, and one from the president. One remarkable exploitation of the peculiar forum the Gridiron affords was Nancy Reagan's performance in 1982 of "Second-Hand Rose." This helped quiet criticism of her first ladyship, which till then seemed focused on designer clothes and new china for the White House. Her willingness to poke fun at hers elf disarmed Washington.

We're coming up to the season when we will hear complaints about sound-bite campaigning instead of serious discussion of the issues. No argument will be made here against serious discussion, but let's hear a word in favor of sound bites: A politician who can't state concisely what he stands for and why we should vote for him probably isn't going to be able to say it any better in a long-form discussion, either. Remember the Roger Mudd interview when Ted Kennedy kept muffing opportunities to say why h e thought he should be president? And there is something about the challenge of being willing to go up to perfect strangers, introduce oneself and shake hands, to seek recognition if not an actual vote, that makes it a valid test of a political figure.

The funniest punchlines are those that are absolutely true. Hence some of the jokes at the Capital Hilton cut awfully close to the bone, many of them in the category of "I can't believe they really said that." But being able to take it, and laugh with the group, is part of the game.

A few years back, Washington Redskins star John Riggins made a name for himself at Gridiron by counseling Sandra Day O'Connor, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, to "loosen up, Sandy baby." At this latest dinner, not only was this episode recounted, but Riggins was invited to stand up and take a bow. A wonderful country, this, where the football hero and the high court justice share such an exchange. It's hard to imagine that they do anything like this in, say, Iran.

And it is a truism that should not go unstated that people in politics generally like other people, even those on the other side of the aisle. People who worry too much about "issues" often misunderstand this. At a time when the lengthening workweek, increasing commutes, and other demands leave most of us too exhausted at the end of the day to engage any but our nearest and dearest, we should be grateful that there are still people out there with the emotional energy to take to the public stage.

One vignette lingers from the evening: a brief handshake with Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and President Bush's new secretary of education, encountered on the passageway into dinner. He was at once familiar from photos, but he managed in just a few seconds to convey an impression of grace and modesty by introducing himself, implicitly acknowledging that he might not, in fact, be universally recognized. That willingness to reach out to strangers is fundamental to politics - as is making cameo appearances in newspaper columns.

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