WASHINGTON – President Harry S. Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” He was almost right. If there is any organization that offers a sense of community in this town of transients and fragile relationships, it is the Gridiron Club.
Last Saturday night, the club performed its 128th annual show lampooning everybody from President Obama to the pope – whomever that may be. It is not a study of contrasts. It is a kaleidoscope of them.
Mandatory dress for men is white tie and tails, attire predating “Downton Abbey” times. Women, admitted to the dinner only since 1972 – more than a half century after female suffrage – wear evening gowns.
In an era when fortunes rise and fall according to TV face time, the program is neither televised nor broadcast. Guests are asked not to Tweet, and to please turn off their iPhones. Well-paid TV anchors like Judy Woodruff of PBS soldier on in rehearsals for weeks, rewarded by only a few lines in a two-hour program, and friendship.
Buffalo journalists have long had a relationship to the club. Correspondents for Buffalo newspapers, whose names are forgotten, were members a century ago. The former Courier-Express numbered one of its reporters as president. The Buffalo News has had a long affiliation, dating since at least 1927. Publisher Warren T. Colville attended his first dinner as boss two nights ago. I have been a member since 1995.
Another link to Buffalo is its former mayor, President Grover Cleveland. He is the only president since 1885 to skip it entirely. Cleveland nursed a deep hatred of the press for prurient reports on his romances in the Queen City.
President Ronald Reagan enjoyed the show, his wife, Nancy, having performed in one.
President George W. Bush spoke at six during his two terms, and he sang in a skit with fellow Texan Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
President Obama attended this year, just his second appearance as president.
The Buffalo News’ involvement with the event peaked in the 1940s and 1950s as a matter of business. The company held federal broadcast licenses, since sold off, for two radio stations, and for years the only TV station in town.
Archives in The News bureau indicate that then-publisher Edward H. Butler Jr. and his aristocratic wife, Kate Robinson Butler, boarded a private railroad car to travel here. Mrs. Butler reserved what seemed like half a hotel floor to entertain hometown friends from Atlanta and boarding school chums from the East.
In the run-up for the actual dinner, the paper gave a reception for more than 120 people in a house called the 1925 F Street Club. Two large private dinner parties followed, capped off with a goodbye affair Sunday night with dessert, coffee and cordials.
Tectonic shifts in the communications business ended all that grandeur, and prompted dramatic changes in club membership. Founded as a club only for capital-based newspaper reporters, membership was opened eight years ago to broadcast journalists under the nudging of Carl P. Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News.
I co-sponsored the first non-newspaper member, the late Tim Russert of Buffalo and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Non-newspaper personalities now predominate club ranks.
Despite daunting challenges to the industry, the party was the place to be for politicians, communications industry leaders and wannabees who were able to grab a ticket for the show, another counter-cultural sellout.
Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus was not there. An actor playing him satirized Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell, singing:
“I telephoned Bill Clinton just to see what lesson he could teach.”