WASHINGTON — The annual dinner-show put on by the Washington Gridiron Club is a great place for a journalist to mix with public figures and pick up information.
Why wasn't President Clinton here? Presidents, since 1885, usually have been eager to star in a setting where the audience is made up of the nation's most-prestigious officials - as well as publishers and editors. In roaming the banquet hall and at parties before and after, I learned that the president, months ago, had told aides he'd do almost anything to be able to find an excuse for not having to face the Gridiron gibes.
No, of course, he didn't decide on making his trip to South Asia in order to avoid this evening of satire. But I'm informed that, had Mr. Clinton wanted, he could have made it back in time for Gridiron. The president was right about the scalding he'd have received: Some of the lyrics were biting. Gridiron journalist (Carl Rowan) depicting Monica Lewinsky sang:
Are you lonesome tonight?
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry it all fell apart?
Does your memory stray to a bright, happy day,
When I kissed you and called you sweetheart?
Last year Clinton sat through lyrics as tough as these and laughed. But this year: It seems he had had enough. So Vice President Al Gore substituted for Clinton. Mr. Gore, too, was a most-reluctant attendee - it took some strong entreaties from most-influential publishers to persuade him to come. Was he wanting to avoid the campaign-finance songs he knew he'd hear? Or was he concerned that he might fail to be funny and rekindle the talk about him being stiff and boring? But he did come; and he was the hit of the evening.
Before speaking, Gore laughed at songs that satirized his tobacco farming and his fund-raising at the Buddhist temple. And when former Ambassador Bob Strauss, who preceded Gore at the rostrum, quipped: "I just talked to Al; and I had no idea that he saved John McCain's life in that prison camp," the vice president leaned back his head and howled with laughter.
Gore started off with several self-deprecating one-liners including: "I have to admit I feel a little out of my element here; but I suppose it's good for me to get out of Nashville every now and then." And from then on the audience was his.
George W. Bush, who also skipped a dinner that some presidential candidates, like Sen. John F. Kennedy, had used to their advantage, got his share of joshing. A Gridiron singer (veteran journalist Helen Thomas) brought to bear her experience of watching a half-century of presidents by singing la Professor Higgins: "Why can't the Bush men use real English when they speak? Their verbal self-destruction is more than tongue in cheek. How could it be that Yalies mangle words the way they do? They really went to Skull and Bones U.," etc.
Soon afterward a singer, dressed up as George W., belted out:
Don't know much about history.
Foreign policy's a mystery.
Growing up I never cracked a book.
Can't recall what courses I took.
But I surely know a vote for me
Will strike a blow for family
And launch a golden dynasty.
My favorite? Journalist Hedrick Smith, dressed as Rudy Giuliani and singing to "Ain't She Sweet?":
Ain't I sweet?
Kickin' homeless off the street.
Takin' kids away from hungry families.
That's a treat.
Ain't I smart?
Tellin' Brooklynites what's art.
And up-set-ting all those pornographic snobs' Applecart.
And there was, of course, a Hillary Clinton number. A woman Gridironer dressed as St. Hillary sang to the tune of "My Way":
Thank God the end is near.
First Lady days are now behind me.
A cheapo bungalow in Chappaqua is where you'll find me
Roaming the state I love, exploring each and every by-way.
And more than that. This time I'll do it my way.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society