WASHINGTON — Nearly all US presidents since Benjamin Harrison have spoken at dinners of the journalists' Gridiron Club. The exception was President Cleveland who, it was widely suspected at the time, was afraid he might hear a barbed lyric about his having fathered an illegitimate child.
No one loved Gridiron affairs more than Teddy Roosevelt. Edmund Morris, in his splendid new biography, "Theodore Rex," makes several mentions of Roosevelt's performances at these dinners.
Mr. Morris depicts a Roosevelt who "laughs uproariously" at the skits but is remembered best for, on one occasion, spontaneously rising and confronting a senator who had become his longtime adversary and, on another occasion, departing from his speech to scold a heckler in the crowd who guffawed when he said he would not run for a second term: "Now don't let us have any damn nonsense," Roosevelt said, raising a hand to quiet the audience. "When I made that declaration on the night of my election, I know what I was about."
Teddy kept that pledge even though it became clear he could easily be reelected.
Of Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, Morris writes: "In company or alone, they were continually roaring with mirth, Taft quaking from head to foot, Roosevelt convulsed with laughter. Members of the Gridiron Club had an opportunity to see them in action as they sat through a skit that satirized Roosevelt's forthcoming role (as an ex-president) as a paid-by-the-word foreign journalist."
But that was several yesterdays ago. This month, it was the 117th annual dinner (yes, going back to 1885) that Washington journalists have put on. Up there on the podium was President Bush, his wife, Laura, seated nearby.
Mr. Bush can be a big laugher and kidder. This night he was warm and smiling. But obviously he was subdued because of the war.
Those in Gridiron who ran the show this year were worried that Bush wouldn't come, that he might decide it was not the proper moment for him to poke fun and participate in an evening of laughter about current events, including the war. Also, they were worried that something might come up in Afghanistan or elsewhere that, at the last minute, would take Bush out of the city.
But here he was.
And the Gridironers were reserving some of their tougher satire for Bush aides like John Ashcroft, but remaining quite warm to the president. Even that reporter who is well known for cutting up presidents with her incisive questions, Helen Thomas, sang to the tune, "Hello Dolly":
Mr. Pres-dent, they lovya
It's so nice that you could
Come up from the farm.
Later on Ms. Thomas served double duty on the stage by representing Laura Bush. To "The Yellow Rose of Texas," she sang:
I'm Laura Bush from Texas
I'm as country as can be
But never diss a cowgirl,
Who's joined a dynasty.
I've cultured up old W,
From what he used to be
And look what it has got me
Now I'm the First Lady.
And some more verses along that line.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle was the star speaker of the evening. He was very funny, playing off the Republican charge that he was an "obstructionist." "I guess I started obstructing," he said, "when I was growing up in rural South Dakota ... or as the rest of the country thinks of it: a secret, undisclosed location."
Then came more tongue-in-cheek explanations of why he was always standing in Bush's way. He also got off some good cracks at Bush before ending his talk with praise for Bush's performance as a war leader.
Bush's speech was short, appropriately so.
He did take some pokes at Daschle: "I sat here tonight and listened to Senator Daschle make joke after joke at my expense," he said. "I can't believe I once hugged that man." But soon Bush turned serious and called on Gridiron members to remember Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who was murdered in Pakistan, by writing letters to his soon-to-be-born son explaining "the larger purpose he was serving when he was killed."
As Morris remembered Roosevelt, so many historians of the future may well cite this expression of compassion by this young president.