- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

The annual Gridiron Club dinner, an elite gathering where Washington journalists poke fun at politicians, is usually a funny, nonchalant affair.
Even at the height of his impeachment woes in 1998, then-President Clinton opened his remarks by saying, "So how was your week?"
But the specter of war in Iraq was never far out of mind Saturday night at the Capital Hilton, site of the 118th Gridiron fete.
"At this hour, the armed forces are at various positions in the Middle East," President George W. Bush said. "They are prepared, if necessary, to remove a gathering danger."
"Normally, the president stands up, has some funny lines and kids a few people, and then ends on a serious note," said CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, wife of Gridiron Club Vice President Al Hunt. "Tonight, he made a brief and only serious presentation, which I think left everybody feeling pretty sober about where we are and wondering how soon."
Mark Shields, the veteran columnist and TV commentator, said, "Any kidding on his part would have been considered inappropriate."
Still, the annual ritual, traditionally a hilarious cocktail of satirical sketches and songs, had its share of side-splitting yuks. It drew, as it always does, an audience of diplomatic, political and journalistic luminaries, including D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of Washington-based reporters, editors and columnists.
It's not every evening, after all, that one sees White House correspondent Helen Thomas dressed as a Haight-Ashbury flower girl, lampooning the San Francisco liberal connections of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
"Only in America could you have such an exhilarating evening at a time of such great tension," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, clad in the traditional Gridiron gentleman's garb of white tie and tailcoat. "The president is focused on the potential for military conflict, and that's where his mind was. But it was great to see him have interludes where he could laugh. It was wonderful to see him here tonight."
Mr. Frist, a Tennessee Republican who still moonlights as a heart surgeon, participated in one of the evening's funniest sketches, comparing the legislative process to the human digestive system beginning at the mouth and churning its way to…
"As you might imagine, the president often doesn't want anything to do with what comes out down here," joked Mr. Frist, who donned a white doctor's coat for the bit.
The human subject for Mr. Frist's "medical demonstration" was none other than Washington Post columnist David Broder, one of the Gridiron Club's 60 active members.
"It was good fun," Mr. Broder said after the dinner. "I didn't have to do anything; I didn't have to say a word."
Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate, chimed in on behalf of his party.
"President Bush says frivolous lawsuits have never helped anyone. Yeah, tell that to my new house in Georgetown," Mr. Edwards, a former trial lawyer, said.
Acknowledging the evening's serious backdrop, Mr. Edwards sounded a note of encouragement for President Bush and the potential war. "In this endeavor, God speed," he said.
"I think all of us reacted in very much the same way," said CNN anchor Paula Zahn. "It was a great relief to laugh, and I think it was also very important for us collectively to be reminded of what we face."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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