This was only the second time in his presidency that he has attended the 19th-century institution’s elaborate white tie affair, where as a senator he once represented the Democrats and won enough approval to make them begin talking about a future run for the White House. When he did get there, he promptly ignored the precedent — set in 1885, when the club was founded — of every chief executive attending in his first year in office, angering a sizable number of the club’s members who thought he had shown a callous disregard for the political leg up he had been given by his first appearance.
Whether the decision to accept the Gridiron’s invitation was part of his effort to appear at least more attuned to the journalistic establishment and to dispel the notion as expressed in one of the show’s songs — that “Obama doesn’t really like us much” — is anyone’s guess. My take is that it ranks with his recent dinner with Republican senators as a gesture motivated by concern over falling polls and their impact on his historic legacy, which is his second-term goal.
There was a time when presidents actually feared jamming a thumb in the eye of the nation’s journalistic opinion makers. They wouldn’t blow off the affair that most foreign leaders would admit couldn’t happen anywhere but in America: a night when the press and the politicians they cover sit down in improbable circumstances and swipe away at each other in (mostly) good-natured camaraderie. But that was when the club, founded 128 years ago for that very purpose, was limited to only 50 members of the print press’ executive and reportorial hierarchy — all men, of course. Presidents often used the Gridiron platform to hint at coming policy, as Theodore Roosevelt did in signaling his trust-busting initiative.
But the way Americans mainly get their news has changed. So the expanded membership to 65 includes a variety of media “stars” from all segments of the industry, including television and those involved in online ventures. Women members have lifted the club’s sometimes-questionable creativity for nearly 40 years now, and the recent show included some well-received songs about the “weaker sex” — especially their newfound military combat status.
That subject brought noticeable enthusiasm from an audience filled with representatives of the military industrial complex and from the national power structure generally, including the Congress, the judiciary and the executive branches. Participation of the latter always swells when the president decides to attend.
As the club’s senior active member, a dubious distinction at best, I have participated in 39 of these shows, watching the evolution from 350 guests who dined in splendor on five to six courses, enduring what often amounted to six hours or more of speeches, music and entertainment, then repaired for more at after parties. It was a necessity for survival that the club laid aside some of the early traditions that made it unique but not terribly modern. Still, that this organization somehow keeps one leg in the 19th century and the other in the 21st is not a bad thing.
The streamlining came about gradually at first then was accelerated by the election of a president of the electronic age who apparently pays scant attention to the print media and is more comfortable with a few friends. Who can blame him? But that may not always be wise considering the image of aloofness it at times has projected.
All in all, Saturday’s extravaganza was one of the Gridiron’s better efforts, bolstered by tight funny songs and good speeches from two rising stars, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. They offset a closer by Obama that drew a few chuckles only because it was delivered by a president.
Well, at least the club’s president, Charles Lewis of Hearst News Service, and his lieutenants kept their promise and had Obama out of there and on his way to his pajamas before 10:30, the promised time.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.