Crooner-in-chief? Now we’ve heard everything
By Carl Leubsdorf
Once a year, normal Washington political antagonism is suspended, and leaders of the two parties, plus their critics in the press, join in showing what unites them, rather than what divides them.
It’s the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club, an organization of Washington journalists, a white-tie affair that pokes fun at politicians and themselves. To some, it’s an embarrassing, all-too-cozy relic; to others, it’s an oasis of civility and fun in an often-uncivil political world.
From the vantage point of the head table, where I presided Saturday night as the club’s 119th president, the mood was one of civility and good fellowship, exemplified by the approach of the night’s top guest and most surprising performer, President Bush.
Bush displayed an ingratiating manner, both in his public moments and as a dinner companion. It reminded everyone why he was elected in the first place and was so popular a governor in Texas.
For four hours, he happily signed autographs from well-wishers — including some Democrats — made pithy comments about political allies and rivals and spoke of his hopes for his presidential library at Southern Methodist University.
As a person, the president is engaging and congenial and, in my dealings with him, always proper and polite. As a Texan might say, he shows his mama raised him right.
That personal manner helped him win the presidency, not to overlook the Supreme Court’s role in affirming the outcome.
But it often seemed subordinated when the cocky new president was riding high from his intrepid response to the 9/11 attacks and the initial acclaim for his decision to oust Saddam Hussein.
As time went on, he seemed less appealing. A growing backlash prompted by mounting difficulties in Iraq and domestic political missteps eroded his public support and exacerbated an already partisan atmosphere.
More recently, tempered by experience, his engaging side has been more evident in encounters with reporters, although it has yet to enhance his low job approval rating, which continues to reflect opposition to his policies.
That engaging side certainly was present Saturday, both in his manner and in his bold decision to risk displaying a rather shaky baritone voice by singing from the Gridiron stage.
That turn, the first by a president, was his idea. He performed with panache, delighting the audience with lyrics that, in the best Gridiron tradition, poked fun at himself and his colleagues:
"Down the lane I look
"Dick Cheney’s strollin’
"With documents he’s been withholdin’...
"Yes, you’re all gonna miss me
"The way you used to diss me,
"But soon I’ll touch the brown, brown grass of home."
At the head table, chances for bipartisanship were limited.
Since Republicans control the executive branch, the only Democrat amid Cabinet members and military chiefs was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, whom I’d hurriedly recruited with the considerable help of Bloomberg’s Al Hunt to speak for his party when Rep. Charles Rangel fell ill.
Bush praised Hoyer for taking on the task at short notice, prompting Hoyer to respond, "I’m a fool." Still, he performed well.
So did Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whom I’d asked a year ago to serve as the Republican speaker. She took some digs at fellow Republicans, including the party’s all-but-certain presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. Nor did she spare Sen. Larry Craig or even Bush.
"They say the office of president ages a man," she said, before adding an evident reference to the Arizona senator:
"Why not elect the one who has a head start?"
Bush seemed to enjoy the barbs directed at McCain, both by the speakers and in a song describing him to the strains of a Bruce Springsteen favorite, "Born in the Fourth Estate."
In the end, the president took full advantage of one of his last opportunities to tell the press what he thinks of it — institutionally and personally.
"You can’t have a true democracy without a free press," he said after his musical turn. But he quickly added, "I’ll admit that sometimes you do get on my nerves."
He even planted a kiss on the cheek of Hearst’s venerable Helen Thomas, though no fan of her sometimes pointed questioning.
In the end, both sides know Bush will be judged by the success or failure of his policies and their ultimate impact on the nation and the world. But a night like this shows that, even after all the criticism, often justified, he understands the press’ essential role in our democracy.
Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Send comments to email@example.com.