WASHINGTON — Spring is when the cherry blossoms burst into bloom in Washington.
For well over a century, it also has been the season for a rash of traditional press dinners where reporters toast and roast high-ranking politicians — and vice versa. Although the jibes are all in good fun, of course, the give-and-take during those glittering evenings is often marked by truth spoken in jest.
The lampooning of the current dismal state of national affairs and those responsible for it shows that Americans do not have to worship at any political shrine and that in Washington everyone is fair game, whatever their status and power. Nothing is sacred.
Some observers believe that the socializing that goes on between adversaries has outlived its usefulness. But I disagree. I think these events have a place in expressing what comedian Stephen Colbert would call "truthiness," and are the essence of free speech in the same category as editorial cartoons and daily comic strips.
One does not think of President Bush as a standup comedian, especially when the roof seems to be falling in at the White House with all the bad news cascading down on the Bush administration.
But the president rose to the challenge last week at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ annual dinner with some self-deprecating quips about himself and Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Well, where should I start?" said Bush. "A year ago, my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn, and my vice president had shot someone. Ahhh, those were the good old days."
Bush continued: "Sorry the vice president couldn’t be here. He’s had a rough few weeks. To be honest, his feelings are kind off hurt. He said he was going on vacation to Afghanistan, where people like him."
"You in the press certainly had a lot to report lately," the president added. "Take the current controversy. I have to admit we really blew the way we let those attorneys go. You know we botched it when people sympathize with lawyers."
“No matter how tough it gets, however, I have no intention of becoming a lame-duck president unless, of course, Cheney accidentally shoots me in the leg."
Second-term presidents are more apt to skip some of the ritual dinners when the political climate is not congenial. Such was the case last weekend at the annual white-tie Gridiron dinner. Bush was a no-show, busy entertaining Brazilian President Lula da Silva at Camp David, Md.
He had just met with the Brazilian leader on a state visit to Brazil a couple of weeks ago. Does that tell you something?
But the vice president substituted for Bush at the dinner where conservative columnist Robert Novak, dressed as Darth Vader and playing the role of Cheney, sang: "It’s not easy being mean" to the tune of Sesame Street’s "It’s Not Easy To Be Green."
By tradition, the Gridiron Club– which dates back to 1885 — dishes it out to both Democrats and Republicans.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential aspirant, was teased in the song "Fly Me to the Moon" for changing his policy positions. The imitation Romney sings:
"Fly me to the moon, or take me any place but here.
"Boston’s too damn liberal, and Provincetown’s too queer.
"I took the Bay State, to good from bad.
"(But) I should have stayed Midwest, like my dad.
"Fly me up to Mars and let me change my point of view.
"Gun rights, abortion,
"These positions ain’t that new.
"A flip, a flop, some will say,
"(But) I can’t win this race any other way."
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s political power play is raked over to the tune of "When you’re Good to Mama" from the hit musical "Chicago."
The talented songstress playing the Pelosi role sings:
"Got a little system,
"Always sees me through.
"If you’re good to Nancy,
"Nancy’s good to you."
The Gridiron chose the "Ballad of the Green Beret" for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose character sings:
"I am the perfect candidate,
"Bill taught me to triangulate.
"I’ll stand up and be a man,
"Better than Obama can."
The next big press-pol event is the annual White House Correspondents dinner later this month. Bush plans on attending and, according to custom, will have the last word.
c.2007 Hearst Newspapers