- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

The spring social season started blooming this weekend as A-listers gathered Saturday night in Northwest Washington for two high-profile events — the Gridiron Club Dinner at the Renaissance Hotel and the Leukemia Society of America Ball at the Convention Center.

However, some of the luster was taken off the Gridiron Dinner by the nonattendance of President Obama — the first absence by a first-year president since Grover Cleveland. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was scheduled to speak in his boss’s stead at the white-tie dinner one of Washington’s few such events.

Mr. Obama attended the dinner in 2006 when he was a U.S. senator and performed a song. But this year, daughters Malia and Sasha began their spring break Friday and so the president took first lady Michelle Obama and the girls to the presidential retreat at Camp David.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, noted that the media, in many people’s minds, worked hard to get Mr. Obama elected and then he turned around and skipped their dinner.

Bob Schieffer of “Face the Nation” performed a skit in cowboy boots and hat and a sweater with a big “W” on it.

Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, when asked outside the dinner about Mr. Obama’s absence, said there would be many “very disappointed people” and pointed out that President George W. Bush never missed the dinner.

Sam Donaldson of ABC News told The Washington Times that “I appreciate that he is a family man and wants to spend time with his children.” And Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, said he understood the president’s decision because “when I came to Congress, I had a 10-year-old son.”

The Gridiron Club is Washington’s oldest and most exclusive journalistic organization membership is by invitation-only and its sole function is the annual dinner of song-and-dance routines that poke fun at politicians, both present and not (the club motto is “singe, but never burn”).

Though the event is closed to press coverage, cell-phone cameras and the general loose tongues of Washington journalists mean that details leak out.

Arriving unfashionably early were the White House’s first fashionistas social secretary Desiree Rogers and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. The Chicago natives, who both have been profiled in Vogue, played Washington diplomats when asked how their new city stacks up alongside Chicago when it comes to partying.

“We’ll let you know after the dinner,” Ms. Jarrett said.

Also having a “girls night out” were Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, arriving with Debbie Dingell, wife of longtime Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat.

Both elegantly attired, the two were asked by The Times who designed their sparkling outfits. Mrs. Dingell demurred, saying her black dress “makes a good uniform” and that she was looking forward to college basketball’s Final Four whichever teams they are coming to her hometown of Detroit.

One lady who knew exactly which designer she was wearing was Mrs. Perino in a Dana Buchman jacket and skirt. But she intimated to The Times that she had bought it at a discount store.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, now president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said he came to dinner to relax.

“We have so many serious problems,” he said. “This event allows us to be humorous and self-deprecating or as my kid likes to say, ‘chill out, Dad.’”

Away from the world of media and political elites, the determined philanthropy community gathered Saturday night at the nearby Washington Convention Center for the 22nd annual Leukemia Society of America Ball, the city’s largest non-political fundraising event.

Ticket prices started at $1,000; a table went for between $10,000 and $50,000. And almost 2,000 people snapped them up, putting the event “pretty close to selling out,” despite the economic crunch, said Donna McKelvey, executive director of the local Leukemia and Lymphoma Society chapter. Organizers expected to raise more than $3 million Saturday night.

Joe Kelley, head of government affairs for corporate sponsor Eli Lilly and Co., who lost his wife Shelley Jerome to a form of leukemia, said the event was a success because of “the passion for people who have been touched by this disease.” He said, “I go to a ton of other political stuff, but I think this is the best event in town.”

Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell said he’s busy training for the new season but didn’t mind flexing his sore muscles for leukemia sufferers. He said he had lost a high school classmate to lymphoma.

The main entertainment at the event was comedian Frank Caliendo, with music by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Mr. Caliendo, best known for his work as a comic sports commentator and his impressions of presidents and political figures, said before the ball that people are “way too uptight” about making jokes about Mr. Obama. He said comedian Wanda Sykes, who will be appearing in May at the White House Correspondents Dinner the highlight of the spring social calendar is “very smart and funny” and, because she is black, will be able to do and say things other comics cannot.

Mr. Caliendo, recalling a recent performance, said he watched former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove approach his car and motion for him to roll down the window. Mr. Caliendo, whose impressions of Mr. Bush are generally unflattering, said he feared the worst: “What is this, the Patriot Act?”

But, he said, it turned out Mr. Rove just wanted to meet him and tell him that Mr. Bush was a fan.

“Oh, I guess that’s why I’ve never been audited,” Mr. Caliendo said he told Mr. Rove