Few towns know how to throw a party like this one. It happened again Saturday night.
For the last 128 years, journalists and politicos have gathered to break bread and satirically skewer each other, all in good humor, sort of, and for a good cause — to raise money in support of journalism education. It is called the Gridiron Club dinner, and Saturday it attracted the biggest names in town, from President Barack Obama and members of his Cabinet and inner circle (Janet Napalitano, Susan Rice), to media personalities like David Gregory and Wolf Blitzer.
So, what’s an ink-stained hayseed from Utah, who mixes his metaphors, doing here? Toasting The Salt Lake Tribune’s Thomas Burr, one of our two Washington, D.C., reporters. Burr has the rare distinction of being invited to join the Gridiron Club, and Saturday night it became official.
Burr’s Gridiron colleagues include such journalists as Susan Page of USA Today, Bob Schieffer of CBS News and Washington bureau chiefs from newsrooms around the country. Membership is limited to 65, and the appointment is for life.
At age 33, Burr is the youngest of the group. He may be the youngest ever. For the record, he’s not the first Salt Lake Tribune reporter to have "Gridiron Club" on his résumé. That distinction belongs to a gentleman by the name of William Edwards Annin, who joined in 1890 and was president in 1896.
Tribune readers know Burr’s byline, especially in the last year as he led our coverage of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, as well as the short-lived run by Jon Huntsman. He and Matt Canham are The Tribune’s D.C. team, covering Utah’s congressional delegation and the federal agencies that loom large in the state, such as the Department of Interior.
The fact that Burr’s abilities and commitment to good journalism are being recognized by his high-profile peers confirms what we already know. He’s very good at covering the issues, the personalities and the circus that is Washington.
What’s more, Burr is establishing himself as a leader among the Washington press corps, serving as president of a group of regional reporters who cover D.C. and as chairman of two other organizations, including the National Press Club’s Board of Governors.
Now, back to the party. While Gridiron is getting younger with Burr’s appointment, it is still rooted in its 19th-century beginnings. Guests dress as if extras in an episode of "Downton Abbey," with men in white tie and tails.
Saturday night, both Democrats and Republicans had their say, with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar representing the Dems, and Louisiana governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate Bobby Jindal speaking for the GOP. Both proved to have potential in stand-up comedy if their political fortunes fade.
Broadway-style musical skits fired sharp barbs at sequestration, gun control, D.C. gridlock and the conflict that is politics. A sample: "I’m in the Mood for Love," with a singer impersonating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor crooning to House Speaker John Boehner.
``Funny, John, when you’re near me, I’m in the mood for blood;
Treason is in my heart, I am ready to plunder
Oh, is it any wonder: You’re ready for a shove.’’
Few left unscathed from the evening’s parody. Not even Obama, whose reputation for being less than friendly to the press was an obvious target.
"As we were walking in," said Gridiron President Charles Lewis, "I thought I heard the president say, ‘So many newspaper reporters. So many interviews to turn down.’ "
Of course, the commander in chief got the last word, announcing that he would take a single question Saturday night. The question: Will he be taking questions? The answer: No. Big Obama smile and laughs from the audience.
At the very end, though, the president’s words didn’t elicit laughs.
"I believe that a free press, one that watches us, one that gets under our skin, is essential in a democracy."
That got a standing ovation.
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