Seriously, the Gridiron Club dinner matters

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Mo Udall (D), the long-time Arizona congressman and one-time presidential candidate, told jokes so often he felt compelled to put out a book called "Too Funny to be President."

The title implied that someone funny couldn't possibly have the gravitas to be president. Actually, his jokes made Udall so likable that in 1976 they at least gave this far-to-the-left Democrat a chance.

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Tonight, after the most savage, dispiriting presidential campaign anyone can remember, Washington gets ready to laugh. It's the Gridiron Club dinner, oldest of the roasts that along with the Alfalfa Club banquet, White House Correspondents' Association dinner and others dot Washington's dinner calendar. In a few hours, 650 of Washington's household names will gather at the Renaissance Hotel. They'll hear reporters satirize them in song, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and his brother, Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), and Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenYes, this election will change America forever The FCC’s Privacy Problem Strong, committed leadership needed to destroy ISIS MORE tell one-liners.

Jokes? When on Friday, a Republican presidential nominee flung words like "fraud" and "con man" at the Republican front-runner? When at the Republican debate, the only jokes were those about the size of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump camp touts million raised since debate Trump reveals how he calmed his nerves before debate GOP lawmakers give Trump bad reviews on debate performance MORE's genitals? When candidates told lies with abandon, distorted the views of their opponents, and incessantly quoted meaningless polls? What's funny?

Lots of people dislike roasts like Gridiron even in the best of times. A typical complaint: what one writer called the "palsy-walsy" of reporters with their sources.

"How can reporters ask the tough questions ... on Monday morning," he wrote, "when we've been yukking it up together ... on Saturday night?"

In 2016, it's hard to argue that reporters have shied away from tough questions — ask Megyn Kelly. It's always a danger, though.

But I just spent the last two years looking over a half-century of Democratic and Republican speeches, press conferences and roast scripts while collaborating on a book, "Democratic Orators from JFK to Barack ObamaBarack ObamaWebb: After the debate Why not Gary Johnson? Donald Trump, the Russian candidate MORE" (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016). At American University I co-teach a course on political speech that includes ways to use humor. I'd argue that especially because of the disgusting spectacle of these last few months, it's useful to remember why the roasts matter.

For while people pay some attention to the celebrity comedians who speak at these events — Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, Joel McHale — the most interesting jokes come from pols. Forced by the unforgiving spotlight of politics into caricatures, they often show a dimension they keep under wraps.

Take 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who spoke at Gridiron in 2009, her image as a take-no-prisoners Tea-Partyer firmly cemented in the public imagination. She surprised listeners with a witty, charming, self-deprecating performance where she poked jabs at ... herself.

"It's great to be here," she said, at the start. "From my hotel I can see ... the Russian Embassy."

At a time when there were leaked reports about how John McCainJohn McCainGreen Beret awarded for heroism during 'pandemonium' of Boston bombing House passes bill exempting some from ObamaCare mandate NBC's Lester Holt emerges from debate bruised and partisan MORE's presidential campaign had disavowed her to reporters, she mentioned her book tour, going from city to city on a bus. "So much better to be on a bus," she said, "than under it." Reporters found this so disconcerting, it became a news story.

Maybe the most confounding appearance in the last 10 years came at not Gridiron but the Alfalfa Club, a drinking club so named because alfalfa roots will travel miles underground to find a drink. In 2011, the reserved and apparently proper Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was made the first woman president of Alfalfa. "It's not the first time," she said in her speech, "that the club has been led by a couple of boobs."

Naturally, nothing is spontaneous at Gridiron. Scripts are written for the speakers by writers. (Disclosure: I'm friends with a number of them.) This should upset no one. We admire President Kennedy's inaugural address though he mostly didn't write it.

The jokes and elaborate skits at Gridiron are imaginative, and remarkably funny even years after they've been performed. That's true of the famous moments: "Second Hand Clothes," the always expensively dressed Nancy Reagan's take on the song "Second Hand Rose" — or JFK's joke about appointing brother Bobby as attorney general ("I can't see that it's wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.")

But it's equally true of the recent ones. Plagued by rumors he was gay — a serious matter in Texas, which consistently has opposed same-sex marriage, then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) laughed it off at 2012's Gridiron: "I like Mitt Romney," he said, "as much as a man could under Texas law."

Two years later, lots of people were accusing President Obama of not "loving" America. At Gridiron, Obama said: "Of course I love America. If I didn't, I wouldn't have moved from Kenya."

We see a number of other interesting things in the way politicians perform. One is how times change. When could a presidential candidate ever make light of a rumor about homosexuality? Or drugs? Last year, Obama told the crowd he knew why they were having such a good time. "It's because weed is legal in D.C.," he said.

It's also interesting when things go wrong. Despite the agonizing debate by speakers, writers and staff over which jokes to use, how much candor you can allow, how much rehearsal you need — senators have skipped votes in order to rehearse more — sometimes speakers make costly mistakes.

At a 2005 Press Club event, then-Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) took an old Bob Dole joke about Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Tech: Tech pushes for debate spotlight | Disney may bid for Twitter | Dem seeks Yahoo probe Saudis hire lobbyists amid 9/11 fight Consumer bureau remains partisan target after Wells Fargo settlement MORE (D-N.Y.) ("The most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera") and changed it to this: "Sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey ... take a little bit of it and he'll throw his own feces at you."

What did it say about Corzine that he would relish that imaginative bit of over-the-top tone deafness? It poisoned the relationship between two Democratic senators from neighboring states for a long time.

And of course, at the 2005 White House correspondents' dinner, there was President George W. Bush's skit, during a time when people were raising doubts whether the weapons of mass destruction he asserted were in Iraq were there or anywhere. Bush showed slides purporting to be him searching under desks for the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, with running commentary. ("Gotta be somewhere ... not over there ... maybe here.") In fairness, the crowd laughed hard. Only later, as the full dimension of his insensitivity sank in, did they pretend dismay.

But on the whole, jokes or skits at Gridiron conform to the Gridiron motto: Singe, don't burn. "If you want to make jokes about Republicans," one of the scriptwriters has said, "write for a Republican."

Presidential hopefuls want to be liked. And an astonishing number of them choose to make fun of frailties they never dare admit. That makes the scripts surprisingly funny years later. In our speechwriting course at American University, we teach humor using former Sen. Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) Gridiron script from back in 2002. Students still find it funny — especially Daschle's mournful lament about not being able to pass anything — not even when President George W. Bush asked him to pass the salt.

So what are the lessons of next Saturday's Gridiron?

I suggest three: one disappointing, the others — well — reassuring.

Satirizing the evils of politics doesn't mean speakers can solve them. At the end of his speeches, Udall would say, "Them's my views. And if you don't like 'em ... I'll change 'em." The fact that he made fun of corruption didn't mean he could ever eliminate it. The jokes get their laughs. The corruption, falsehoods and lies stay on. 

Also, for me, researching the Fifties and Sixties, the degree of coziness between reporters and subjects absolutely damaged their objectivity. It's dangerous for reporters to delude themselves into thinking they are friends with the people they cover.

Reporters are tougher now. They can handle one "palsy-walsy" night. Meanwhile, these events offer listeners something they need — if they could only watch. This year, presidential candidates have acted especially stupid. They reek of certainty, assert the other side is not just wrong but evil, put God squarely on their own side. That's just in debates within their party. Of course so many Americans despise them.

Gridiron lets us at least suspect they're more complicated.

Look at Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (R-Texas). It's hard to imagine that he would poke fun at himself the way he did at the 2014 Gridiron by praising Canada, his birthplace. Canadians, he said were "so polite, mild-mannered, modest, unassuming, open-minded. Thank God my family fled ... before it could change me."

There's more evidence that Cruz has another dimension. Go to YouTube and watch him perform an entire scene from "The Princess Bride." Not a roast, and hardly spontaneous, it's brilliant. Cruz with a Yiddish inflection! Who would believe?

Those lucky enough to have a ticket on Saturday will realize pols do see some of the foolishness politics demands: the inflated claims, the pain of disappointment and the fiction of propriety.

And finally, sometimes, if you look harder, you see points they can't say but might imply. In 2013's White House correspondents' dinner, Obama complained about the way people think he should "spend more time with Congress."

"'Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellDems gain upper hand on budget Overnight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule MORE?' they ask. Really? Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?"

Nothing mean on the surface. But the incredulous "Really?" and size of the laughter made it clear how pointless that complaint was.

Reporters can handle the coziness. Saturday night, as the Castro brothers, Haley and Biden take the stage, they can provide a few more self-deprecating reminders that politicians — even The Donald — are better than we imagine.

It's worth watching. Too bad only 600 people will see it.

My plea: Put Gridiron on YouTube. Let more Americans see that politicians can be more complex, more insightful and less vain than the straitjackets forced on them by debates, two-minute buzzers, instant polls and the other indignities heaped on them by campaigns. And give them a chance, by paying attention, to hear not just insults, but insights.

Lehrman served as White House chief speechwriter to former Vice President Al GoreAl GoreMark Mellman: Debating the debate Debate of century lives up to its billing Frenzy builds for epic debate MORE and has published four novels and is co-author/editor of the new book "Democratic Orators from JFK to Obama" (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015). He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University and writes often about politics.