The Wisdom of Folly


Washington.--I woke up Monday feeling like what I was -- an overdone Tennessee smoked ham -- after 10 days of rehearsing and two days of performing song and satire in the 108th dinner of The Gridiron Club.

I grew wearier after reading one journalist's query about the real-world significance of an "old world" white-tie dinner in which a bunch of "elite" journalists make fools of themselves before the titans of industry, the power players of government and assorted other fat cats.

Some of us crooners make no pretensions beyond our belief that in a sane and civil society, fun and foolishness must have a cherished place. We know the truth of the saying, "No fools, no fun." We know, also, that over 108 years many journalists and political leaders have expressed the view that profound benefits arise from the breaking of bread together by those we Americans entrust with awesome power and media watchdogs to whom the founding fathers granted remarkable freedom.

While I don't take my few nights as a thespian all that seriously, you can point to current world events and persuade me that the Gridiron and other media dinners symbolize something important, that they explain in part why we Americans overcome assassination attempts, assaults on the judiciary, debasements of the Congress and remain free of coups, remain the most stable system of government in the world.

Russia's Boris Yeltsin would sure as hell have preferred to be at the Gridiron dinner Saturday night to fighting off Kremlin attempts to impeach him.

I shall never forget listening to the ambassadors of Nigeria and China expressing astonishment that the Pentagon and White House would tolerate the barbs and ridicule they had heard at a Gridiron dinner some years ago. The Nigerian said to me: "We copied your Constitution almost word-for-word. We got the words right, but we never got the spirit." Nigeria had just locked up dozens of journalists; the country was hit with another coup weeks after he spoke to me.

These dinners afford the "watchdogs" a rare chance to lecture their "master," the president of the United States, and occasionally new national policy is solidified. Saturday night a Gridiron soloist, posing as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, sang magnificently to the tune "Maria" a plea for just one more "Scalia." With another Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, the song said, "no one would abort again . . . Amen."

President Clinton, who has a seat to fill on the high court, got up and turned to Mr. Rehnquist to say, "Mr. Chief Justice, one more Scalia? Forget it!"

I got a kick out of singing about a corrupt congressman who had served "Sixteen Terms" to the old Tennessee Ernie Ford tune, "Sixteen Tons" and learned mostly how to "Cash that check; churn that mail; get as rich as you can without landing in jail."

This congressman's lament, "I owe my soul to every PAC that I know," was a musical way for the media to say to leaders of Congress that the American people want reforms that wipe out check-kiting, postal and campaign-financing abuses that make talk of "democracy" a fraud. The song made it clear that cries for "term limits" are powerful.

That little song also said to President Clinton that in an era of savings-and-loan, housing, stock-market and other gigantic scandals, the administration can't get away with goofy gestures of beefing up an "ethics" staff that makes pretensions of purity by declaring that White House officials may not "sell their souls" to journalists who offer a mere, in-the-open, $180 seat to an annual public dinner.

Can you believe it? After this search for the political-social-diplomatic-security relevance of that dinner, I don't feel the pain of my abuse of body or lapses of gustatory judgment any more.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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