President Barack Obama had a ready excuse for anyone who didn’t think he was funny enough at the Gridiron dinner on March 9: “My joke writers have been placed on furlough.”
Always a target for humorous barbs, the president tossed out a few of his own Saturday night during the Gridiron Club and Foundation dinner, an annual event that features political leaders, journalists and media executives poking fun at each other.
The so-called sequester – the forced automatic spending cuts – that struck the federal budget this month drew another observation from Obama: “Of course, there’s one thing in Washington that didn’t get cut – the length of this dinner. Yet more proof that the sequester makes no sense.”
The ambitions of 70-year-old Vice President Joe Biden? “Just the other day, I had to take Joe aside and say, ‘Joe, you are way too young to be the pope. You can’t do it. You got to mature a little bit.’”
During a pause in his remarks, Obama took a long, slow sip of water and then said, “That, Marco Rubio, is how you take a sip of water.” He was referring to an awkward moment in which the Florida senator drank from a bottle of water during the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address.
Obama also mocked criticism from some quarters that he takes time off from his job. “We face major challenges. March in particular is going to be full of tough decisions. But I want to assure you, I have my top advisers working around the clock. After all, my March Madness (college basketball championship tournament) bracket isn’t going to fill itself out. And don’t worry – there is an entire team in the Situation Room as we speak, planning my next golf outing, right now at this moment.”
The dinner was the organization’s 128th since its founding in 1885. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar represented the Democrats while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal cracked jokes for the Republicans.
Klobuchar joked that Obama had aged in office. “His Secret Service name used to be ‘Renegade,’” she said. “Now it’s ‘50 Shades of Gray.’”
Jindal took a poke at Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, telling the audience that Romney had warned him that “47 percent of you can’t take a joke.” Referring to his own prospects for a presidential run, Jindal, an Indian-American, asked, “What chance does a skinny guy with a dark complexion have of being elected president?”
Political disputes and feuds between politicians and the news media provided plenty of fodder for jokes and Gridiron parodies. There was Obama’s sometimes frosty relationship with the news media, the internal struggles roiling the Republican Party, and journalist Bob Woodward’s dustup with White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. He advised Woodward in an email that the veteran Watergate reporter would regret his reporting about the forced spending cuts.
In prepared remarks to welcome the 650 people attending the dinner, Gridiron president Charles J. Lewis of Hearst Newspapers noted that the organization had promised to keep the evening short, “especially because Gene Sperling said that a late night is something we’d all regret.”
With a nod to print reporters’ complaints about dealing with the Obama administration, Lewis said he thought he had overhead Obama remark on the way to the dinner: “So many newspaper reporters. So many interviews to turn down.”
Musical skits are a tradition at the Gridiron dinner, and club officials released its musical program ahead of the event. Using the Beatles song “When I’m 64,” one skit featured a look at Hillary Rodham Clinton’s future with the lyrics:
Got a bit older, Growing my hair, Gained a pound or two
Going home to vegetate in Chappaqua, I just want to be a grandma
It was more than a case of Benghazi flu, Still I’ll be just fine.
Will you select me, will you elect me, When I’m 69
Noting the close relationship between the Republicans and the influential gun rights lobbying group, the National Rifle Association, Gridiron members sang a tune called “My Gun,” a takeoff on the song “My Girl.” The lyrics included:
If you hate the NRA/Tell my Walther PPK
You’re flirting with disaster/With my Bushmaster
And when pigs fly away/You can take me away
From my gun
The Gridiron Club and Foundation contributes to college scholarships and journalistic organizations. It limits its active members to 65 journalists based in Washington.
Except for Grover Cleveland, every president since the Gridiron was founded has addressed it. The club is the oldest and most exclusive for Washington journalists. Its motto is “singe but never burn.”
No TV cameras were allowed.
The following is a transcript of the president's remarks:
10:03 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Before I begin, I know some of you have noticed that I'm dressed a little differently from the other gentlemen. Because of sequester, they cut my tails. (Laughter.) My joke writers have been placed on furlough. (Laughter.) I know a lot of you reported that no one will feel any immediate impact because of the sequester. Well, you're about to find out how wrong you are. (Laughter.)
Of course, there's one thing in Washington that didn't get cut -- the length of this dinner. (Laughter.) Yet more proof that the sequester makes no sense. (Laughter.)
As you know, I last attended the Gridiron dinner two years ago. Back then, I addressed a number of topics -- a dysfunctional Congress, a looming budget crisis, complaints that I don't spend enough time with the press. It's funny, it seems like it was just yesterday. (Laughter.)
We noticed that some folks couldn't make it this evening. It's been noted that Bob Woodward sends his regrets, which Gene Sperling predicted. (Laughter.) I have to admit this whole brouhaha had me a little surprised. Who knew Gene could be so intimidating? (Laughter.) Or let me phrase it differently -- who knew anybody named Gene could be this intimidating? (Laughter.)
Now I know that some folks think we responded to Woodward too aggressively. But hey, when has -- can anybody tell me when an administration has ever regretted picking a fight with Bob Woodward? (Laughter.) What's the worst that could happen? (Laughter and applause.)
But don't worry. We're all friends again in the spirit of that wonderful song. As you may have heard, Bob invited Gene over to his place. And Bob says he actually thinks that I should make it too. And I might take him up on the offer. I mean, nothing says "not a threat" like showing up at somebody's house with guys with machine guns. (Laughter.)
Now, since I don't often speak to a room full of journalists -- (laughter) -- I thought I should address a few concerns tonight. Some of you have said that I'm ignoring the Washington press corps -- that we're too controlling. You know what, you were right. I was wrong and I want to apologize in a video you can watch exclusively at whitehouse.gov. (Laughter.)
While we're on this subject, I want to acknowledge Ed Henry, who is here -- who is the fearless leader of the Washington press corps now. (Applause.) And at Ed's request, tonight I will take one question from the press. Jay, do we have a question? (Laughter.) Surprisingly, it's a question from Ed Henry. (Laughter.) “Mr. President, will you be taking any questions tonight?” (Laughter.) I'm happy to answer that. No, Ed, I will not. (Laughter.)
I also want to recognize David Corn. He's here from Mother Jones magazine. He brought his iPhone. So Bobby Jindal, if you thought your remarks were off the record, ask Mitt Romney about that. (Applause.)
I have to say, I thought Bobby was incredibly funny this evening. (Applause.) I thought he was terrific. Amy Klobuchar was sparkling and fantastic and fabulous. (Applause.) I am worried about Al Franken though. (Laughter.) How do you start off being one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live and end up being the second-funniest Senator in Minnesota? (Laughter and applause.) How the mighty have fallen. (Laughter.)
Now I'm sure that you've noticed that there's somebody very special in my life who is missing tonight, somebody who has always got my back, stands with me no matter what and gives me hope no matter how dark things seem. So tonight, I want to publicly thank my rock, my foundation -- thank you, Nate Silver. (Laughter.)
Of course as I begin my second term, our country is still facing enormous challenges. We have a lot of work to do -- that, Marco Rubio, is how you take a sip of water. (Laughter and applause.)
As I was saying, we face major challenges. March in particular is going to be full of tough decisions. But I want to assure you, I have my top advisors working around the clock. After all, my March Madness bracket isn't going to fill itself out. (Laughter.) And don't worry -- there is an entire team in the situation room as we speak, planning my next golf outing, right now at this moment. (Laughter.)
But those aren't the only issues on my mind. As you are aware -- as has been noted this evening -- we've had to make some very tough, huge budget cuts apparently with no regard to long-term consequences, which means I know how you feel in journalism. (Laughter.) I've been trying to explain this situation to the American people, but clearly I am not perfect. After a very public mix-up last week, my communications team has provided me with an easy way to distinguish between Star Trek and Star Wars. (Laughter.) Spock is what Maureen Dowd calls me. Darth Vader is what John Boehner calls me. (Laughter.)
Of course, maintaining credibility in this cynical atmosphere is harder than ever -- incredibly challenging. My administration recently put out a photo of me skeet shooting and even that wasn't enough for some people. Next week, we're releasing a photo of me clinging to religion. (Laughter and applause.)
I'm also doing what I can to smooth things over with Republicans in Congress. In fact, these days John McCain and I are spending so much time together that he told me we were becoming friends. I said, “John, stop. Chuck Hagel warned me how this ends up.” (Laughter.)
It took a while, but I'm glad that the Senate finally confirmed my Secretary of Defense. And I have to say, I don't know what happened to Chuck in those hearings. I know he worked hard, he studied his brief. And I even lent him my presidential debate team to work with him. (Laughter.) It's confusing what happened. (Laughter.)
But all these changes to my team are tough to handle, I've got to admit. After nine years, I finally said goodbye to my chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau. I watched him grow up. He's almost like a son to me, he's been with me so long. And I said to him when he first informed me of his decision, I said, “Favs, you can't leave.” And he answered with three simple words -- "yes, I can." (Laughter.) Fortunately, he did not take the prompter on his way out. (Laughter.) That would have been a problem. (Laughter.)
With all these new faces, it's hard to keep track of who is in, who is out. And I know it's difficult for you guys as reporters. But I can offer you an easy way of remembering the new team. If Ted Cruz calls somebody a communist, then you know they're in my cabinet. (Laughter.)
Jack Lew is getting started on his new role as Treasury Secretary. Jack is so low key, he makes Tim Geithner look like Tom Cruise. (Laughter.) Don't worry, everybody, Jack signed off on that joke or a five year old drew a slinky. (Laughter.) I don't know which. (Applause.)
Another big change has been at the State Department. Everybody has noticed that obviously. And let's face it -- Hillary is a tough act to follow. But John Kerry is doing great so far. He is doing everything he can to ensure continuity. Frankly, though, I think it's time for him to stop showing up at work in pantsuits. (Laughter.) It's a disturbing image. (Laughter.) It really is. (Laughter.) I don't know where he buys them. He is a tall guy. (Laughter.)
And even though I'm just beginning my second term, I know that some folks are looking ahead to bigger things. Look, it's no secret that my Vice President is still ambitious. But let's face it, his age is an issue. Just the other day, I had to take Joe aside and say, “Joe, you are way too young to be the pope." (Laughter.) "You can't do it. You got to mature a little bit." (Laughter.)
Now, I do want to end on a serious note. I know that there are people who get frustrated with the way journalism is practiced these days. And sometimes those people are me. (Laughter.) But the truth is our country needs you and our democracy needs you.
In an age when all it takes to attract attention is a Twitter handle and some followers, it's easier than ever to get it wrong. But it's more important than ever to get it right. And I am grateful for all the journalists who do one of the toughest jobs there is with integrity and insight and dedication -- and a sense of purpose -- that goes beyond a business model or a news cycle.
This year alone, reporters have exposed corruption here at home and around the world. They've risked everything to bring us stories from places like Syria and Kenya, stories that need to be told. And they've helped people understand the ways in which we're all connected -- how something that happens or doesn't happen halfway around the world or here in Washington can have consequences for American families.
These are extraordinary times. The stakes are high and the tensions can sometimes be high as well. But while we'll always have disagreements, I believe that we share the belief that a free press -- a press that questions us, that holds us accountable, that sometimes gets under our skin -- is absolutely an essential part of our democracy.
So I want to thank everybody for not just a wonderful evening -- and, Chuck, I want to thank you for your outstanding presidency -- but I also just want to thank you for the work that you do each and every day. And in the words of one of my favorite Star Trek characters -- Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise -- “May the force be with you." (Laughter and applause.)