When a president is under heavy criticism, he may well skip the Gridiron Club's annual dinner in order to avoid the satirical jokes and songs that will be aimed in his direction. The anti-Vietnam protest caused Lyndon Johnson to duck the grilling. And Richard Nixon stayed away when he began to drown in Watergate.
But here was a gutsy President Clinton, standing at the podium for a few moments last week, looking down at his notes before flashing his big smile and greeting us with this opener: "So how was your week?" The audience - made up of members of the press and public figures - roared with laughter.
I've been coming to the Gridiron dinner every year since the early 1970s and I must say that I've never seen a president, under fire from fierce press criticism, face his accusers with such grace and good humor. He admitted it wasn't easy - that, indeed, he had thought about not coming. But here he was, poking fun at himself with this: "Please withhold subpoenas until all the jokes are told." And then he followed that quip by reading a list of jokes his lawyers had approved for the evening, including: "Knock-knock: Don't answer that."
The Gridiron Club's guiding motto is that "we may singe but we never burn" in its satire. To that, Mr. Clinton rather ruefully commented in his speech, which came at the end of the evening, "I've picked up a lot of singe marks tonight."
The singeing came early when a George Stephanopoulos figure offered advice to White House interns to the tune of "People Will Say We're in Love": "Don't whisper in his ear, don't whistle when he runs, don't say you admire his buns. People will say you're in love."
Even before that the Gridiron Club's president, Robert Novak, in his dinner-opening speech turned to the president and said: "There are benefits, Mr. President," (of sitting beside me all evening): "the opportunity to hear me on supply-side economics and the gold standard. Well, at least it's better than talking to the grand jury."
Helen Thomas, dean of White House correspondents, was one of the hits of the show. Impersonating Hillary Rodham Clinton (and with the first lady looking right at her across the ballroom and, for the most part, smiling), Ms. Thomas sang about how the president "Wags the Dog" - to the tune of "Ballin' the Jack":
"First you call your pollsters every night, they say your ratings are high and the folks have seen the light. Ask poor Mike McCurry not to be forthright, watch him spin around, and spin around with all his might. Go before the Congress with style and grace, tell them that you're sending John Glenn out in space. When you're through you leave them all a-gog. That's what I call: "Waggin' the dog."
Others beside the president did not escape the singeing. A newsman playing Ken Starr sang to "I'd Do Anything": "I'd do anything to nail him, anything." And in describing the lowering of media coverage standards today a club member sang to "Anything Goes": "It's very chic today, to print a leak today. We feel we must today, cover lust today. And a crime today, will seem sublime today. On many TV shows."
And what of the public's tepid reaction to the massive press coverage of the scandal around the president? To the tune of "All That Jazz," a member sang: "Got Dow Jones, we don't need Paula Jones, and all that jazz. We buy Amex, so please don't sell us sex, and all that jazz."
Newt Gingrich also delivered a great speech, one that some in the audience thought was the House Speaker's declaration of intention to run for president. Newt may have been even funnier than Clinton.
But it was the president's evening. Clinton was funny when he probably had more reason for crying than laughing and making people laugh.
You can't beat that kind of performance.