The Magazine

Lives of the Scribes

What you thought you knew about the Washington press corps.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Of special interest is the space devoted here to that ur-Washington institution, the Gridiron Club, which has been staging winter follies in a white-tie setting for well over a century. These annual events feature pointed skits teasing presidents and other political bigwigs, who are expected to attend, laugh, and retort. For a very long time, the evening’s follies opened with a reminder that “ladies are present,” meaning presumably that locker-room humor was out of order. But of all the recent indicia of journalistic change, none is more startling or symptomatic of what has befallen old-boy networks than the recent advent of Susan Page of USA Today as the Gridiron’s fifth female and first baby boomer president.

Even more revolutionary has been the dilution of the so-called pencil press by members from TV—though one hopes not the clowning producers who drove Stern and Graham out of reporting. It was Page, in her presidential “speech in the dark,” who marked another transition in her tribute to David Broder, the dean of recent political reporters, who had died four days before the Gridiron dinner in February 2011: “He embodied the values of thoughtful and civil engagement on the most critical issues we face as a nation.” It was true, and more good things could be said of Broder. But one quality especially marked him as exceptional in a thin-skinned trade: He usually devoted his last Washington Post column every year to a critique of his own errors and oversights.

My own unscientific survey of the reportorial species would include another institution overlooked here, the Sperling breakfast, long convened by Godfrey Sperling, chief Washington correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor—perhaps because it so often could have been described as the Gridiron with bacon and eggs. On weekday mornings, in one hotel eatery or another, one would find an assemblage of many eminent reporters and correspondents—often the aforementioned Broder and also Robert Novak, the equally brilliant political reporter who posed, in his later years, as the “prince of darkness,” and loved the role so much that he almost believed in it. Sperling could draw administration and congressional eminences for an hour of on-the-record questions and answers.

So far as I recall from my own time at Sperling’s friendly table, few sensations emerged—not even when Bill Clinton, as a candidate in 1992, was asked toward the end of the hour about his rumored dalliances. (“I thought you’d never ask,” Clinton replied, but spilled no beans.) Though there was the weird morning, in the second Reagan term, when Admiral John Poindexter, the new, naïve national security adviser, was summoned to the White House mid-breakfast. Naturally, we wondered what agenda couldn’t wait another 30 minutes. It was shortly surmised that the official line on the recent Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev was under overhaul, and what had been perceived as a flop was about to be reclothed as the coming millennium.

In fact, as is noted by Hess, Poindexter had let it out that one of his functions was to blow smoke at the press. His tenure was brief.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure

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