WASHINGTON — President Bush may or may not be picking up support for his tax-cut plan as he travels far and wide to pull the public behind his proposal. But in less than a half hour, George W. did as much and maybe more for himself and his legislative agenda with a very funny, self-deprecating speech at the 116th annual dinner of the Gridiron Club of Washington.
An exaggeration? I don't think so. This assessment of Bush's speech was the judgment of my seatmate at the dinner, Robert Strauss, a Democratic chieftain whose political savvy gets a No. 1 rating among both politicians and journalists.
After the Bush speech, I wandered among the journalists, public officials, and influence wielders as they exited from the Capital Hilton ballroom and heard this assessment, over and over again: "Bush really helped himself tonight." Then, later, while schmoozing at post-Gridiron parties that night in the hotel, I repeatedly heard this same rave appraisal of the Bush address - from Democrats as well as Republicans.
So it was that George W. strode out of the ballroom with an extra spring in his step. I watched him closely as he left the podium and he looked to me like a man who knew he had won over a very critical crowd. He was exultant. The next day Gridironer and self-described Democrat Mark Shields, speaking at a reprise of the show, called the speech "a 10 strike." And a few days later Mr. Bush's increased self-confidence was evident in his press conference.
No, this won't be the ball game for Bush. Far from it. He'll have to prove himself. There's a long road ahead. But it was a very good boost for a beginning president.
The Bush lines drawing the biggest laughs were these: "A hobby I enjoy is mapping the human genome. I hope some day I can clone another Dick Cheney. Then I won't have to do anything." And these: "There have been stories about my intellectual capacity. For a while I thought my staff believed it. There on my schedule first thing every morning it says 'intelligence briefing.' "
Bush also made fun of himself over his muffing of words and his short work day (compared to Clinton's).
No, this is not an audience that loves every speech. Far from it. It has been known for years as the toughest crowd in Washington. Politicians know they can build a career with a Gridiron speech. But they also know their careers can end there if the speech falls flat. That's why some top politicians turn down invitations to speak. Too big a risk.
But all presidents over the years have been taking that risk since Benjamin Harrison came to dinner more than a century ago. George W. showed on his face that he was a bit uptight as he sat on the stage, waiting to speak. Going back a few years, Presidents Kennedy and Reagan were helped immensely as they began their administrations by making particularly witty, boffo speeches.
In the Gridiron show itself, club members who entertain the audience with a roast of public figures gave their sharpest pokes to the departing Clintons. A Gridiron soloist sang to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious":
"People say we stole the store
"Now isn't that a pistol?
"We just took what's owed to us
"And grabbed ourselves a fistful
And veteran Hearst journalist Helen Thomas, dressed up as Laura Bush, sang to "Home on the Range":
"I'll talk about books, and schmooze with the agents and cooks.
"When we go away, the silver will stay,
"'Cause we're not like those Arkansas schnooks."
Al Gore's conspicuous absence from the dinner was lamented in the song "One For My Baby":
"I thought I had won.
"The polls and anchors, they all told me so.
"But those GOP judges
"Said it was time to go.
"This should be my night
"For Gridiron in my own right.
"In tie and tails I get some laughs.
"But Clinton threw me,
"Wouldn't cede the front page to me.
"Not even to this day."
It was quite an evening!
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor