Occasionally, the job of the President is to tell jokes. He was tasked with being funny at a dinner party last night at the 128th annual Gridiron Club and Foundation dinner. It helps that he's not all that bad at it.
For those wondering, the Gridiron Club and Foundation is an exclusive group primarily made up of Washington newspaper reporters. Like the White House Press Corespondents' annual party, the President usually comes and speaks (but not every year) and has a few laughs with the press to keep them occupied. The stuffy ones throw stones and accuse them of being too close, but fun-haters will be fun-haters. You can never please them. But the Gridiron is unlike the WHPC dinner because the invitations are so exclusive. Celebrities don't get to mingle at the Gridiron dinner. Only the hardest of hard-nosed journalists do.
Which is to say the attendees are a whole lot uglier, and the jokes are a whole lot dorkier. This year, the President led with sequester jokes. "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," he said, referring to the cut of his suit. But those weren't the only things trimmed from his preparation for the evening: "My joke writers have been placed on furlough," he said. "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."
In fact, it's been two years since the President showed up at the Gridiron party. He addressed it early on. "As you know, I last attended the Gridiron dinner two years ago," he said. "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."
Of course, entertaining a room full of print journalists means the President had to address the transparency concerns brought up this year. What better time to do it when he's speaking to everyone who's complained, and they're all (at least) two glasses of wine deep? "Now, since I don’t often speak to a room full of journalists. I thought I should address a few concerns tonight," the President said. "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." Ziiiing.
The President wasn't the only one who spoke last night. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke before the President, and was quite funny himself. But the President may have got the last laugh. He started singling out members of the Press for certain jokes, and perhaps got his best line in when addressing anyone who might be recording the night's speeches. "I also want to recognize David Corn. He’s here from Mother Jones magazine. He brought his iPhone," Obama said. "So Bobby Jindal, if you thought your remarks were off the record, ask Mitt Romney about that."
The President was also attending the dinner alone, though, something that didn't go unnoticed or unaddressed. "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," Obama said, addressing the elephant in the room. "So tonight, I want to publicly thank my rock, my foundation -- thank you, Nate Silver."
But the President's mind was as focused as ever on the repeated challenges and failures he faces every year around this time. Getting certain things done, and succeeding, has eluded him. He knows it, and he addressed it outright. "As I was saying, we face major challenges. March in particular is going to be full of tough decisions," he said. "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." Hint: don't bet on U.N.C. or Duke this year.
Things have been going well for the President lately, despite a few bumps in the road. He's spending more time with the Republican leaders, which should, in theory, make things run smoother in the future. "I’m also doing what I can to smooth things over with Republicans in Congress," the President explains. "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.'" Well, or not.
And the President seized on the opportunity to take some shots at his departing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and his incoming Secretary of State, John Kerry. It seems they have a disturbingly similar taste in sartorial choices. "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," Obama said. "Frankly, though, I think it’s time for him to stop showing up at work in pantsuits. It's a disturbing image. It really is. I don't know where he buys them. He is a tall guy."
But, jokes aside, the President closed the show with a touching tribute to the press. They're an institution he sees that are as vital as the political offices they cover:
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. 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.
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."