Gridiron's century of sizzling

GROVER Cleveland didn't attend it. But Benjamin Harrison did. And so has every United States president since then, including Ronald Reagan. ``It'' is the annual Gridiron Dinner, one of the most exclusive and certainly the most nonsensical annual social event in the nation's capital. And with the Gridiron Club celebrating its 100th anniversary, the white-tie dinner Saturday night was a special occasion of nostalgia and madcap mirth. Imagine Geraldine Ferraro singing to the melody of ``La Donna E Mobile'': There's no en-joy-ment, In un-em-ploy-ment. Now I've got pa-yo-la, Pu-shing Pepsi Cola.

It wasn't the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate herself, of course, but United Press International reporter Helen Thomas, impersonating her in a musical parody of Ms. Ferraro's appearance in a Pepsi ad. And that was but one number in an evening of song and dance roasting politicians, Cabinet secretaries, presidents -- and demonstrating that behind the partisanship and pretention of Washington lies a huge measure of good will, mutual respect, and camaraderie.

It was not only the press ``sizzling'' the politicians. During the almost five hours of the Gridiron dinner, the politicians got in their licks, too, often laughing at themselves. Ms. Ferraro -- the real Ferraro -- twitted Vice-President George Bush's ``mood swing'' in the 1984 debate. Treasury Secretary James Baker poked fun at his job swap with Donald Regan, now White House chief of staff.

``You know that it was Don Regan who suggested the big switch,'' Mr. Baker said. ``I said, `Don, I don't know whether I'm qualified to make a good secretary of the Treasury.' He said, `You're probably right, but the country needs me.' ''

Baker also commented on Mr. Regan's take-charge style at the White House, saying that when he called the White House to see how the new chief of staff was doing, Don replied, ``Great, I'm finished.''

But it was the Great Communicator himself, President Reagan, who (after a lot of ribbing about his snoozing habits) brought down the house with the opening line: ``Good morning!'' He also caused a stir when he suggested the US export its farmers and keep the grain at home.

Ostensibly ``off record.'' But with an audience filled with news executives and with even the main speakers -- always a Democrat, a Republican and, in closing, the President -- giving reporters the exact quotes, detailed press accounts of a Gridiron evening have become commonplace.

The Gridiron Club, formed in 1885, limits its membership to 60 Washington journalists, a restriction that sometimes invites a charge of elitism. But there is a long waiting list for membership in the club. And whereas it once admitted only males and whites -- a barrier that ultimately provoked picketing on Gridiron nights -- today the doors are open to women and nonwhites.

Membership is only by sponsorship. And the chosen few -- mostly bureau chiefs, assistant bureau chiefs, well-known political writers and cartoonists -- revel in belonging, devoting countless weeks and to writing, producing, and rehearsing the skits for the annual dinner event.

``They love it because tradition and history have endowed it with a certain fame, and each member partakes of a small part of the fame,'' writes Robert J. Donovan, former associate editor of the Los Angeles Times, in the Washington Journalism Review. ``They love singing to the accompaniment of the United States Marine Corps Band and Orchestra and hamming it up in gaudy costumes and grand setting before some of the most famous people in the world.''

But not only the journalist members and their editors love it. So do the government leaders, politicians, corporate executives, publishers, and others invited to watch the irreverant mocking of people of power and influence. Among the audience Saturday night were also US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, Secretary of State George Shultz, prominent senators and representatives, high White House aides -- even Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who, got rousing applause from an audience made up largely of the press.

As the guests worked their way through trout Genevoise and rack of lamb, the Gridironers went through their numbers. The first act was a musical review of songs performed at dinners of the past, lampooning Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson. Several numbers capsuled the post-Watergate era, including this satire of the GOP sung to ``America the Beautiful'': O beautiful for Tel and Tel, Du Pont and Sperry Rand, For US Steel and Honeywell And Continental Can; American Cyanamid, Three M's and A & P; and Standard Brands and Ho-Jo Stands From sea to shining sea!

In the second act the Gridironers went after today's politicians, including the President. Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Truit drew outbursts of laughter impersonating Sen. Paul Laxalt singing ``On the Road Again'': It's old Ron a-gain, Gon-na jump-start good old Ron a-again. Say-ing things that we may ne-ver hear a-again. We GOT to get Ron on the road a-again.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger took a ribbing when ``Rep. Les Aspin,'' new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sang ``I Found a Million-Dollar Baby'': We buy our toilet seats at Tiffany's We drive Mercedes by the score. They found a million-dollar hammer In a five-and-ten-cent store.

William Casey, director of central intelligence, also took a hazing in a spirited rendition of ``America, West Side Story'': Hoo-ray for Cen-tral A-me-ri-ca! C-I-A's Cen-tral A-me-ri-ca! We'll pay for Cen-tral A-me-ri-ca! O-l'e in Cen-tral A-me-ri-ca! Cas-tro's a no in Ma-na-gua. Mi-ning is go in Ma-na-gua. I know a plan that can cure us: We will take o-ver Hon-du-ras.

Nor did the Democrats go unscathed. An impersonator of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo sang an impassioned version of ``Arrivederci, Roma'': Bon giorn-no, Ma-rio Cuo-mo. Hell-o, hell-o, to you. I was such a su-per-great key-no-ter, Tak-ing care of ev-ry eth-nic quo-ta, Bet that I could cary-ry Min-ne-so-ta

On and on went the evening of nonsense, with Gridiron president John W. Kole of the Milwaukee Journal serving as master of ceremonies and Marine Col. John R. Bourgeois crisply directing the musical production. This year's musical stars wore particularly outlandish and colorful costumes, all planned with a view to a television taping of the show for a one-hour special ``Politicians on the Griddle'' to be aired on PBS May 6.

Not to be forgotten amid all the hilarity and gentle fun -- the skits are supposed to ``singe but never burn'' -- was the early highlight of the Gridiron dinner: a performance by the US Marine Corps Band. When the men and wowen of the band, dressed smartly in their reds and blues, struck out with ``Stars and Stripes for Ever'' and other favorite marches, they electrified their listeners and set the tone for an evening of bipartisan fun.

Where, one wonders, but in America?

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