Bowing to precedent -- and perhaps the advice of his 2012 campaign staff -- President Obama attended a Gridiron Dinner on Saturday night for the first time since winning the White House.
He had skipped the two previous white-tie banquets and amateur theatricals where some of Washington's top journalists spoof the political/media establishment in song, dance and ridiculous costumes. But on Saturday night, Obama duly snarked for his supper by mocking himself, potential rivals and the tradition-bound club that even in this age of Twitter and You Tube, steadfastly bars TV coverage.
As commander-in-chief, he signaled Marine Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Bennear, one of the club's musically gifted ringer members, to "play that song we talked about," meaning the loud and proud "Born in the U-S-A, Born in the U-S-A" refrain made famous by Bruce Springsteen.
"Some things just bear repeating," Obama said of the lyrics, as if there might be any birthers questioning his citizenship among more than 630 politicians, government and media heavyweights who packed the Renaissance Hotel ballroom for the priciest and most exclusive of Washington's press celebrations of itself. ($300 per ticket, and a fraction of the more than 2,000 expected at next month's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner).
Then, taking aim at his hosts, whose predecessors entertained their first White House guests 126 years ago, Obama ticked off the heady events of 2011 that topped old regimes elsewhere in the world and said, "Look out, Gridiron Club."
He had other targets, of course, some of them in the audience and most already ridiculed onstage in elaborately costumed Republican and Democratic skits.
Commenting on the "unusual skin tone" (translate orange) of the absent Speaker John Boehner, Obama said he used to think it was a tan until he saw how often his nemesis got weepy: "I realize that's not a tan, it's rust."
Noting a new civility (really?) that has "people with strong disagreements getting along as never before," Obama cited Mitt Romney, the "former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate working together by sharing a host body. It's inspiring...and creepy."
Obama thanked the rotund Republican Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi -- not known for his athleticism -- for backing first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" anti-obesity initiative. "Haley, when Michelle said you should run, she didn't mean for president," the president said.
As for the also-absent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama said her passion for recent Middle East regime change made it "hard to sleep with Hillary out on Pennsylvania Avenue shouting and throwing rocks."
The president had barbs for the dinner's two other speakers, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a possible 2012 White House contender, and Democratic Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor who has struggled to push Obama's embattled health care plan.
"Mitch tore into his filet like it was a public employee," Obama said of Daniels, who reversed the requirement that state workers be union members. He cited Daniels's prior experience as a pharmaceutical executive and President George W. Bush's budget chief. "I don't have a joke here," Obama said. "I just wanted to put that out."
Having asked his own cabinet members to "cut things they care about, in Kathleen's case it was her once-promising political career."
Earlier Daniels, his right arm in a sling following rotator cuff surgery, went after Obama by recalling the Democratic candidate's private remarks to big party donors about conservatives clinging hard to their guns and their religion. "Mr. President, until I get this thing off, I can cling to my gun or my Bible, but not both," Daniels said.
At 5 feet 7 inches and balding, Daniels, who said he's still mulling whether to run, ticked off
a string adjectives used to describe him in recent news stories. "Small, stiff, short, pale, unimposing, unassuming, uninspiring, understated, uncharismatic, accountant-like, non-telegenic, boring, balding, blunt, nerdy, wooden, wonky, puny, and pint-sized," he said. "Really, it all points to one inescapable conclusion: It's destiny!"
In her speech, Sebelius told Daniels they had much in common. "We're both Midwest governors, we've both been cabinet members and neither of us is going to be president in 2012," she said.
Saying one reason she took her current job was because "it came with great health insurance," Sebelius then announced a plan to put TSA airport screeners in the HHS building "making it a lot easier for the businessman on the go by allowing him to get a boarding pass and a colonoscopy at the same time."
Among all that levity a couple of backstories played out.
At a time of toxic partisanship in Washington, the 65-member Gridiron Club (disclosure alert: I was tapped to join in 1990) and its swank dinner offers the chance for political adversaries to share a night of conversation, merriment, political gossip and agenda promoting.
But it's also the kind of gathering that make cynical voters outside the Beltway think there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two political parties, and that the relationship between the pols and the press is entirely too cozy and elitist.
The Gridiron president, Susan Page of USA Today, took note of that when she said in her welcoming speech that all those swells dressing up in white tie and sipping fine wine and hanging out for an evening "is exactly what the tea party suspected."
Then there is the irony of the Gridiron's policy of barring TV cameras, photographers and non-member, non-guest journalists from covering the dinner.
This is the 25th consecutive year C-SPAN has been denied access, prompting Mark Knoller, longtime White House correspondent for CBS Radio and not a Gridiron member, to Tweet
that although Gridiron members attending the event are allowed to cover it, "barring WH press pool coverage of a presidential event is indefensible."
But Page told Politics Daily that transparency is maintained by all those reporters at the dinner who file stories after it's over, and who attend the Friday dress rehearsal to see the costumes and hear the lyrics. She also told me there is no great move afoot among members to push for TV cameras inside the room.
In part, it's to preserve a little mystery and exclusivity. But let's not kid ourselves. There probably aren't too many Gridiron members -- or their bosses who pick up the considerable dinner tab – very eager to end up on C-SPAN or You Tube dressed as a Hell's Angel, a drag queen or a dancing oil rig.
As Obama left the ballroom Saturday night, he had one bit of cheery news for the crowd: "The bar will be open till midnight and last time I checked, so will the government." Actually, the after-party was still going strong early Sunday.