President Obama, center, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, right, leave… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
WASHINGTON – President Obama served up a steady course of one-liners at the Gridiron Club dinner Saturday night, a storied song-and-joke fest attended by Washington’s political power brokers and the journalists who cover them, providing a timely stage for the White House's new charm offensive.
“Because of 'sequester,' they cut my tails," quipped Obama, the headline guest at the 128th annual event, a white-tie affair that pokes fun at official Washington. "There is one thing in Washington that didn’t get cut: The length of this dinner. Yet more proof that the sequester makes no sense.”
The president gently mocked leaders on both sides of the political aisle after having launched a very public campaign to reach out to Republicans on Capitol Hill. Obama made jokes about Sen. Marco Rubio's awkward lunge for water during the Florida Republican’s response to the State of the Union address and John F. Kerry's wardrobe as he succeeds Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State.
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Before the president addressed the event, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota spoke for the Democrats and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for the Republicans.
About 650 guests dined on ginger-roasted shrimp, sea bass with vintage port sauce, fruit and berry salad and petits fours with the Gridiron logo at the Renaissance Washington Hotel. The evening's campy array of satirical skits, jokes, songs and dance took aim at Washington’s budget stalemates, partisan squabbling, the battle over gun control and sex scandals.
The club, whose members include the nation's top print and broadcast media personalities, is open by invitation only. The exclusivity of the event has drawn criticism for providing a too-cozy environment between the journalists and the political elite. At the same time, demand has increased for some breaking of bread as an antidote to Washington's dismal dysfunction.
After brutal battles with Republicans, Obama last week hosted a dozen GOP senators at an elegant hotel for a private talk on the nation's budget challenges and had lentil soup and sea bass at the White House with Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the chief architect of the House GOP budget and, as the No. 2 on Republican presidential ticket, an aggressive Obama critic.
The president will head to Capitol Hill to extend his outreach with visits to both Democrats and Republicans. “Compromise is possible,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "And I'll enlist anyone who is willing to help."
But, delivering the GOP response on Saturday, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama took a more combative tone, citing poverty that persists in the nation's capital city as an example of Obama's failed budget priorities. "Compassion demands that we change," he said.
Almost every president has attended the annual Gridiron event.
Obama has attended as a senator in 2006, when he made fun of Vice President Dick Cheney's shooting skills after Cheney accidentally shot and injured a hunting companion.
The Gridiron dinner is strictly off the record, but the White House makes the president's remarks public and the club provides information on some of the jokes and skits.
The club’s president, Charles J. Lewis of Hearst Newspapers, riffed on the kerfuffle over a sharply worded email exchange between a top White House advisor and Bob Woodward, promising to keep the evening short, “especially because Gene Sperling said that a late night is something we’d all regret.”
“He told us that as a friend,” Lewis joked.
In a skit that poked at the Republicans, club members mocked the party’s loyalty to the National Rife Assn. and the tension between the party’s moderates and conservatives. An impersonator playing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sang, “I’m in the mood for blood,” suggesting that the Virginian wanted to knock off House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The Democratic sketch had fun with former Secretary of State Clinton’s possible run for president and Vice President Joe Biden’s fix-it role at the White House.
In a little ditty, the club members ridiculed the top leaders in Congress for failing to craft a budget deal to avoid the $85-billion across-the-board cuts to this year’s federal budget:
You’d think a sound solution here would be a real no-brainer;
They play a game of chicken just to see who’s more insane-er;
The culprits, their identities could not be plainer;
Nancy, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid and Speaker Boehner.
The Gridiron Club and Foundation is a nonprofit charitable organization that provides contributions for college scholarships and journalism organizations.