Put John Kerry on stage with one of the three senators who opposed his confirmation as secretary of state and an erstwhile Republican famous for hugging President Barack Obama, and you have Gridiron, an evening of pointed humor at the expense of guests of honor.
“’Je m’appelle John Kerry,” the chief U.S. diplomat said in his opening at the Gridiron’s winter white-tie-and-tails dinner, evoking his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston that nominated him for president. “Je suis reporting pour devoir.”
President Barack Obama, who delivered his own career-propelling keynote speech at that convention, was not on hand for this dinner — he was away with his family in Key Largo, Florida. Obama has attended few of the annual Gridiron Club dinners during his presidency. So the administration dispatched Kerry, returning only the night before from nearly a week on the road negotiating crises in Ukraine, Syria and the Middle East.
“It’s not lost on me at all that I was not your first choice — nor his,” Kerry told a hall of journalists, political and military leaders and stars such as tennis’ Martina Navratilova and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Kerry “crossed the world to be here tonight,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in his remarks kicking off a night of punch and counter-punch. “What a treat it must be for him tonight to share the dais with one of only three senators to vote against his confirmation.”
“Ted Cruz,” Kerry said in his stand-up routine at the head table, “it’s got to be a great feeling to be in a roomful of people who are laughing with you.”
And that fairly well set the table for several hundred people assembled in a ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel for an event that traces its roots to Grover Cleveland’s administration. It is billed as the oldest journalism organization in Washington, and Bloomberg’s Clark Hoyt, this year’s Gridiron president, noted at the start that “most Gridiron members think Instagram is what we eat to stay regular.”
In a room featuring members of the Cabinet, senators, congressmen, Red Sox and Boston Globe owner John Henry, comedian Stephen Colbert, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (co-founder and majority owner of this shop), attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson — the duo who battled over the 2000 election contest of George W. Bush and Al Gore only to unite in a fight for same-sex marriage in the federal courts — Gridiron-Washington veteran and Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt recognized Jeff Zients, the presidential economist brought in to fix the “Obamacare” Healthcare.gov website, as “Mr. Fix-it — next assignment, control/alt/delete Joe Biden.”
Hunt acknowledged Gov. Terry McAuliffe as the “Virginia governor who buys his own Rolexes.”
The president’s own Marine Band, tracing its roots to the bandleader and composer John Phillip Sousa, assisted the Washington press corps in an evening of skits that portrayed Cruz as “a Flintstone Cowboy,” celebrated New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for his “national ascension stuck at a Jersey intersection” and lamented Obama’s current political dilemma with “there ain’t no cure for the second-term blues.”
Cruz, weighing his chances for a 2016 presidential contest, confronted a crowd that hadn’t appreciated his “green eggs and ham” filibuster in a bid to block Obamacare that forced a 16-day government shutdown in October. “For many people,” Cruz said, “I might have ruined Dr. Seuss forever.”
”Nobody in this town knows how it feels to have your citizenship questioned,” said Cruz, born in Canada. Looking back on his year and a couple months in the Senate, he said, “I guess the hard lesson is that charm can get you only so far.”
“Oh, sure, I have my differences with President Obama, but I try to get along with this president, really I do,” the senator said. “When a man starts to assume absolute power, you want to stay on his good side.”
“I am hailed as the anti-Obama,” Cruz said, “but tonight I am the anti-Crist.”
And this was Charlie Crist he was talking about: The former Republican governor, attorney general, education commissioner and state senator from Florida who ran for Senate as an independent, turned to embrace Obama at his 2012 re-election nominating convention and now is running for governor again as a Democrat.
“Charlie sits here today a committed Democrat,” Cruz said, “but who knows, the night is young.”
Crist, who enjoys a permanent tan, explained that he was invited because the “Gridiron wanted someone of color.” He embraced Cruz’s joke: “Gridiron always pokes fun of candidates of both parties — could have saved time and just invited me.”
His wife sometimes reminds him that Republican Sen. John McCain, the party’s nominee for president in 2008, picked then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin over Crist as his running mate — as “more qualified.”
“Since I followed Ted Cruz tonight,” Crist said, “I had a breakfast speech prepared.”
“I believe in freedom of speech,” Crist also said, “even if that freedom of speech is reading Dr. Seuss to Congress.”
Noting that his own book tour for “The Party’s Over” would take him to the iconic Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington Sunday morning, Crist said of his journey from the Republican Party to independence to the Democrats, “If you read it backwards, it sounds like the Joe Lieberman story.”
“Is Charlie still here?” Kerry asked when his turn arrived. Yes, Crist called out, he was still here. “I had to check,” Kerry said, “cause he’s always so quick to leave a party.”
For all the levity that Cruz and Crist brought to the head table, Kerry commanded the evening with a wide-ranging run of jokes for a club that prides itself on humor that “singes but never burns.”
“I will adhere to the motto, `singe, don’t burn,” Kerry said, “which also happens to be the motto of John Boehner’s tanning salon.”
It was good to see so many people assembled in white ties and tails this evening, Kerry said — “or, as we call it at our house, work-out gear — or, as we call it at our other house, pajamas — or, as we call it at our other house, swimming costumes.”
Echoing Obama’s promises about Obamacare, Kerry told the crowd: “If you like your rented tux, you can keep it.”
For Cruz, Kerry had some advice about 2016: “Ted, I don’t know if you’re planning to run for president — or as Hillary and I call it, secretary of state try-outs.”
“But if you do,” Kerry told Cruz, “choose your convention keynote speaker very carefully — you might end up working for him some day.”