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Gridiron Dinner: ‘Speech in the Dark’

Right off the bat, USA TODAY Bureau Chief Susan Page made a crack about C-SPAN.

A bold move for a woman who was at odds with C-SPAN and some other Washington journalists this week for not permitting cameras into last night’s Gridiron dinner.  “Please be seated. I’m Susan Page of USA Today, president of the Gridiron Club and Foundation,” she said. “Welcome to the 126th anniversary Gridiron Dinner. Or, as we like to think of it, Glee meets C-SPAN Three.”

The speech was generally light but had serious parts such as a tribute to WaPo‘s David Broder, who died this week.

Page’s speech was called “Speech in the Dark.” It ends with her reading the Giridon Rules. For example: “The Gridiron’s first rule: Ladies are always present. This rule dates from the time when ladies were never present. It was meant to caution the speakers that their humor wasn’t supposed to be too blue. Sorry, Charlie Sheen.”

Some sound ancient. See the speech in its entirety…

As we all know, journalism has been pulling through some hard times. Even this club has been forced to seek corporate sponsors. So I now give you the Speech in the Dark — brought to you by PEPCO.

Here we are: The president of the United States and ambassadors from around the world, senators and governors, network anchors and newspaper columnists. Dressed up in white tie. Sipping fine wine. Standing around — all buddy-buddy — in the dark.

Exactly as the Tea Party suspects.

And guess what? The Federal Reserve is in charge of the goodie bags.

After 126 years, it’s hard to be the first of anything at the Gridiron. But I am the first Gridiron president from USA TODAY.

So I’ll be brief.

I am also the first member of the Baby Boom generation to serve as Gridiron president. As that may indicate, things are slow to change here at the Gridiron. It’s only been five years since we acknowledged television was more than a passing fancy and admitted TV reporters as members.

I predict bloggers will be due for consideration — about 2025. After all, some in the club still think Twitter is an ailment that afflicts our older members. Oh, who are we kidding? Even our younger members are older members. They remember when Arianna Huffington was a conservative.

I’m also the Gridiron’s fifth woman president. Although, according to the Club historian, the 17th to wear a dress.

It’s been 37 years since the Gridiron Club voted, narrowly, to admit women. When I was elected to membership 25 years ago, some members were still in — well, denial. Imagine Hosni Mubarak at an Internet café.

On the day I was elected, one of the Gridiron’s more senior members took me aside and said: “I want you to know that I’m not against having women in the Gridiron Club. . . . I’m just against the women we have.”

We are so pleased that President Obama has returned to the warmth of the Gridiron. Welcome, Mr. President. Benjamin Harrison was the first president to address a Gridiron Dinner while in the White House, and every president since Grover Cleveland has done the same.

President Obama, thank you for continuing that long tradition.

In 2006, Senator Obama was the Gridiron’s Democratic speaker.

Mr. President, you joked that as a freshman senator you already had won a Grammy, been on magazine covers and written a best-seller. You wondered what else there was to do. You said, “Well, I guess I could pass a law or something.” Since then, you’ve been elected president and won the Nobel Peace Prize. About the only thing left for you to do now is. . . pass a budget?

Republicans are struggling with budget issues, too — including Social Security. They disagree on whether to make the retirement age 70 or 73. So they have compromised. Under the new GOP proposal, Social Security will begin at 70 and end at 73.

Our Democratic speaker this evening is an architect and chief salesman for the administration’s controversial health care law: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Welcome.

What a difference a year can make. On the night of last year’s Gridiron Dinner, Congress was moving toward its historic vote on health care. Now, 21% of Americans believe the law already has been repealed. This demonstrates the great success that Secretary Sebelius has had with the administration’s new sales pitch: “Health care law? What health care law?” Kathleen Sebelius is a former governor of my home state, and the first daughter of a governor to become a governor herself.

She has long called for more women to enter politics. Which explains why she is now mentoring Bristol Palin. . . .

What a role model! A governor who finished at least one full term.

She is one two dynamic Midwesterners who are representing the major political parties tonight. In fact, Kathleen Sebelius is so exciting she’s been called: The Mitch Daniels of Kansas.

Which brings us to our Republican speaker this evening, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Welcome.

Some of you may think we invited him because he’s one of the 138 prospective Republican presidential candidates for 2012. Not so. We did our research and discovered that, as a student at Princeton, he was once arrested for marijuana possession. So two words: After Party.

Mitch Daniels was Budget director for President George W. Bush. On his watch, the annual federal budget went from a 236-billion-dollar surplus to a 400-billion-dollar deficit. Right now, President Obama is thinking: “Hey, that sounds pretty good.”

I’m so pleased that my husband, Carl Leubsdorf, is here, too — three years after he led the Gridiron Club. A wife working hard and finally assuming the presidency once held by her husband. . . . Thank God my campaign consultant.wasn’t Mark Penn.

(PAUSE)

On a more serious note — Our thoughts tonight are with the people of Japan as they deal with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami there. They have our prayers. And fresh in our minds is the terrible shooting rampage in Tucson just nine weeks ago. We stand in awe of the miraculous progress that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords has made and look forward to her return.

Tonight, we also remember our great friend and brother, David Broder of The Washington Post. Before he passed away this week, he was the senior active member of the Gridiron Club. He loved the Gridiron Club, and we loved him. He embodied the values of thoughtful and civil engagement on the most critical issues we face as a nation.

The lives and work of David Broder and Gabby Giffords are reminders of the things that bind us, even at a time of partisan division and turmoil.

It is, I think, one reason the Gridiron Dinner has endured through changing times. Once a year, despite our partisan divisions and adversarial relationships, we come together for an evening of fellowship and humor. It is a recognition of the respect we have for one another — and reminder of the love of country that we share.

And no one can refudiate that.

Since 1885, the Speech in the Dark has ended with a recitation of the Gridiron Club’s three rules. We continue that tradition tonight, of course, even though two of the rules no longer make much sense.

The Gridiron’s first rule: Ladies are always present. This rule dates from the time when ladies were never present. It was meant to caution the speakers that their humor wasn’t supposed to be too blue. Sorry, Charlie Sheen.

The Gridiron’s second rule: Reporters are never present. This means that we don’t allow live coverage or cameras at the dinner. Many of you have smart phones in your pocket capable of live-streaming the dinner — not to give you any ideas. We ask that you don’t. The White House photographer will take some pictures for the president’s archives. We ask our other guests: Please, no photos or video.

We also ask that you refrain from blogging, tweeting, or changing your Facebook status.

However, once we sing Auld Lang Syne and the dinner is over, you are free to post and tweet. Or take a call from your favorite Koch (“COKE”) brother.

The Gridiron’s third and final rule: The Gridiron may singe, but it never burns. This is a rule that does still apply. We don’t mind making our dinner guests squirm in their seats during our performance on stage. But we don’t want to make you so mad that you stand up and walk out.

Still, you might want to at least identify the nearest exit now.

With all that said, let us once again bask in the friendly glow of the Gridiron.

(Gridiron logo illuminated)

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