THE 108th renewal of the Gridiron's white-tie dinner was particularly eventful: Helen Thomas, White House correspondent for United Press International, presided over the gathering as the club's first woman president.
After long years of annually poking fun at the nation's leaders, the Gridiron Club looks to some outsiders like an unshakable institution. Yet, back in the early 1970s this organization of journalists was under siege and shaking because of the "Men Only" sign it had pinned on its door. Women on picket lines greeted the guests as they entered the Capital Hilton Hotel. Editorial criticism came from all around the country. And some prominent officials, charging discrimination, declined invitations.
Then on Feb. 7, 1975, the Gridiron elected Ms. Thomas as its first woman member. The club also expanded its membership and began to give special consideration to possible women members.
Today, as the dinner guests the other night could plainly see, women have made highly visible progress in the organization. Taking note of this, the males in the Gridiron chorus, all gussied up as women, expressed their deference to the "newcomers" as they sang to the tune of "There is Nothing Like a Dame":
"Having women in the Gridiron has made it a better club.
"And if you think we're groveling -
"Believe it, bub!"
The women in the chorus responded with a song that gaily made one resounding point: "We want more!"
The club faced a new challenge this year. The Clinton administration, filled with Arkansans and other outsiders who aren't about to bow down to established Washington traditions, decided for a while that it wouldn't allow its big shots to attend the spring dinner. It took the position that such a gathering involved inappropriate schmoozing by government officials with publishers and reporters. It appeared that this boycott would send the affair into a tailspin. But, almost at the last minute, the Clinton
higher-ups relented and came. The Clintonites had to note that the Gridiron participants devoted the evening to tossing jibes at them. This was an evening obviously dedicated to pricking pomposity and ridiculing hypocrisy - with socializing a secondary aspect. Based on what guests said afterward, it turned out to be a wonderful evening with everyone apparently agreeing with the chorus' closing song - to the tune, "A Real Nice Clambake":
"This was a real nice Gridiron.
"And we've all had a real good time."
The high point of the evening came when performer Jack Duvall, portraying Chief Justice William Rehnquist, told how he wistfully longed for another justice like conservative Antonin Scalia - to the tune, "Maria," from "West Side Story":
"Say it loud and there's trumpets playing.
"Say it soft and you'll hear
"School kids praying.
"Scalia. If I just had another Scalia.
"The most reactionary
"Word I ever heard...
The president laughed all the way through this song. Chief Justice Rehnquist didn't appear to find it that amusing. A truly inspirational moment came at the end of the five hours of entertainment and dining when the chorus sang "Hope," written (both music and lyrics) especially for the night's show by John Hall of Media General. It concludes with these words:
"Hope...Another chance for us all.
"Hope, You gotta have it, you can give it to someone who's
"Hope...Is a hand when you fall.
"It doesn't matter where the storms have tossed and flung
"As long as we can care about the least among us.
"America is: Hope."