Every year about this time, the collection of mostly dotty Washington newspaper people calling itself the Gridiron Club puts on a show that gently needles the political establishment. Because the satire is traditionally so tender, and because the president of the United States comes and laughs even when he is the butt of the joke, everybody else laughs too.
Last night's presentation by the 106-year-old club was the first to be threatened by war in many a year. Club president Godfrey Sperling Jr., of the Christian Science Monitor, said that if the Persian Gulf conflict had continued, the show would have been called off. Instead, the recent war became the dominant theme, with characters portraying the likes of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Peter Arnett and the Emir of Kuwait.
As always, the red-white-and-blue message was that although press and government may be inevitable adversaries, down deep we're all patriots, equally dedicated to the good of the country. In the past, that assumption has been tested by the Vietnam war, Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal. Although tattered, it has survived. This time, press-military contention over gulf war coverage was addressed head-on and everybody was poised to laugh on cue, ready to forgive and forget.
But as those previous times of strain have shown, good humor merely submerges the antagonism for a moment. Last night, two players dressed as Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were scheduled to sing:
"When it's briefing time each day, we have got the press at bay, and a muzzled press is a big success, hooray. . . . We get orders from George Bush, we know when and where to shoosh, and a push to shoosh has to come from Bush, we say -- But we're always true to reporters in our fashion -- Yes, we're always true to reporters in our way."
A character playing John Sununu, White House chief of staff, sang among other things that "Happiness is a docile press -- and I must confess -- that is where I'm a master."
Eventually the skit came to April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador who reportedly told Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait that this country took no sides in intra-Arab disputes, and Sen. Alan Simpson, the Republican who accused CNN's Baghdad correspondent Peter Arnett of being an Iraqi "sympathizer." The real-life senator said Mr. Arnett's reporting from Vietnam had been suspect because he was rumored to have a brother-in-law who was active in the Viet Cong.
To the tune of "April in Paris," the Simpson character sang: "Baghdad in April -- doing my own thing -- I found that Saddam's -- my kind of guy. . . . I just adore to hear him snarl -- 'bout the freedom of the press. I told him how their wicked ways -- got him into such a mess. Saddam's much straighter -- and so much sweeter-- than sneaky Peter -- Arnett."
Those lines might have drifted by as merely one more Gridiron dig, easily laughed off, except that last week Mr. Arnett appeared at the National Press Club and disclosed that he had a videotape of Senator Simpson scolding him and other U.S. journalists for their critical coverage of Saddam Hussein. "We were upbraided for referring to this paragon of virtue, an American friend, a future power in the Gulf." Mr. Simpson asserted that "we did not understand Hussein," the correspondent said.
A day later, a letter of apology from Mr. Simpson appeared in the New York Times. He was sorry about repeating an unfounded rumor about Mr. Arnett's family, he said, and he now thinks the word "sympathizer" was not well chosen. But this was no retraction of his earlier criticism, it was merely a rephrasing: "The word 'dupe' or 'tool' of the Iraqi government" would be more appropriate to describe Mr. Arnett's role, the senator said.
The in crowd, the incumbent party, often finds reason to poison public opinion about the press in time of trouble. Behead the messenger, goes the cry, lest the people demand the head of the ruler. While this is contemptible, it is understandable when the news is bad. But today, during and after a quick and complete victory, when the nation is cheering, Alan Simpson still cannot bring himself to admit how contemptibly wrong he was.
Some Gridiron members sang the words about the senator's affection for Saddam Hussein with special vigor last night. This one wishes we had revised the lyrics to say what we really were feeling.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.