tv Gridiron Club Historian George Condon Interview CSPAN August 26, 2015 3:40pm-3:54pm EDT
people. i think each member basically starts with four. me, as president, i have an unlimited amount of people i can invite. if i can afford to pay for their tickets. an that is the one benefit of being president besides being the center of attention for a whole evening, whether i want to be or not. and i should not quite the center. if the president of the united states he or some day she is the center. this is inevitable. how do we get the president there. through formal invitation, prodding and cajoling, find people who know the president well and get to them and to put in a good word for you, et cetera. presidents, since grover cleveland, who was in office when the club was founded, nobody could convince him to come. he didn't get along that well with the media. but does any president?
but every president since then has come to the gridiron as an honored guest and has spoken. the president unlike a lot of organizations, we give the president the last word of the evening. so in a matter what is said before, how much lampooning going on, the president gets the last word which is a very important attraction. and it is viewed as important enough that they've all come. some of them haven't come every year. president obama hasn't. richard nixon didn't come every year. and so i say at the end -- especially at the end. or carter. and ronald reagan was here every year and his wife performed famously singing secondhand clothes to the tune of secondhand rose and turned her image around. everybody had her as a big stuffy and standoffish and everybody agrees that america
appreciated her more afterwards. and that was one case where motos did -- photos did leak out somehow, we think through the white house. >> and president of the gridiron club this year, thank you for your insights. >> and thank you for visiting. >> now more on the history of the gridiron dinner with national journal white house correspondent george condon. >> george condon, white house correspondent for national journal. we're here in your office overlooking the potomac and the kennedy center. you also have another title. historian for the gridiron club. and let me ask you about the dinner itself. it is the most formal in washington, d.c. white tie and tails, why? >> we consider white tie and tails casual. you don't spend a saturday at
home in white tie and tails. i'm kind of shocked. but with the gridiron club, it is tradition. that is what they wore at the beginning and we've stuck to it. there have certainly been conversations about changing it. president franklin roosevelt was a big lobbyist to try to get it to change. in fact his final exchange with gridiron club was a letter about a week before he died in 1945 in which he explained, i can't come to the dinner, i'll be in warm springs, georgia. but he said i notice in the invitation it was black tie. and he said hooray, you are finally changing it. they had to explain to him, that was just a -- it was a war-time thing so they weren't doing white tie and tails in the middle of a war, even though it was nearing an end. >> let's talk about presidents an the gridiron club. any president refuse to show up.
>> the very first president. the founding of the gridiron club came at a time of real tension between the press and public officials. congress was furious at the press because of the stories written about the credit mobile scandal which was an exchange of members of congress gets stock in railroads and the construction of the railroad. and the gridiron club was in part an effort to try to heal that rift. and it marked the more professionalization of the press. so at the very beginning you had president grover cleveland had just survived what is still probably our nastiest presidential election, in 1884. and he really hated the press. a hatred which grew when he really, really disliked how the press covered his engagement and wedding at the white house.
and then his honeymoon. he really hated how they covered his honeymoon. so he refused every invitation. but he is the only president. after that benjamin harrison and every president since harrison has attended. >> more recently, ronald reagan, who seemed to enjoy these dinners? >> he did. >> he went to all eight? >> i believe -- i'm not -- yes, because he had just gone to the one before he was shot. so yes, he did go to all eight. but he had some memorable lines. he one line when farmers were complaining about his policy and grain sales to the soviet union and he said we ought to keep the grain and send the farmers ab that was supposed to be off the record and it got out. >> let me ask you about more
recent presidents. george w. bush, barack obama, bill clinton, what has their attendance record like. >> bill clinton was in the hospital for knee surgery during one of his. but i think he went to six of the eight. george w. bush, i believe, went to every one. and in fact, both presidents clinton and bush participated in the show. in 1993, president clinton put on a sparkly costume and played the saxophone. and in his last year, president bush went on stage and sang a song that the lyrics have been changed about -- it was a western song about how he was leaving town. >> when the organization was formed, the white house and the washington press corp,
predominantly white and male. that has changed. >> you noticed. >> when did the gridiron club change in terms of women and minorities. >> i should have checked the exact year. carl rowen, the columnist, was the first african-american member and he became president in 1988. he became a member in the 70s. and women also was in the 70s. and there was more focus on the change of women and a lot more opposition. there really wasn't opposition to having a black membership. but there were protest dinners, gridiron club dinners and they started attracting more of the big names, george mcgovern made a point of going to the protest dinner instead of the actual dinner. and the members pretty much
caved, finally. >> over the years has a dinner ever been canceled or postponed because of a natural disaster. you mentioned war in 1945. >> well they did cancel during world war ii and world war i dinners. the one i just mentioned, the letter with fdr saying he couldn't attend. he died the next week and they did cancel the dinner then. there haven't been any recent consolati consolations. >> what about protests? >> there were some involving women. there were pickets and there were protest dinners. there really hasn't been much of anything other than that. >> there are a couple of books behind you, chronicling the history of the gridiron dinner. as the historian, what is your job and what are you looking for that hasn't already been reported or researched? >> well i'm very grateful for these because i'm also a
historian for the white house correspondent association and the frustration there is nothing was saved. we didn't know who the own presidents were or what years we had dinners and where we had dinners or who our entertainers were. and the contrast with the gridiron club is sharp. here is a book written only 20 years after. here is one 25 years, 48 years, 100 years. and if you -- i'm new to the job as gridiron historian replacing todd periodham and i have not gone yet to the library of congress but at the library of congress we've given all of our files and it is just a treasure trove. one member, i just saw this last week, started maintaining a scrap book in 1885 and kept it going until his death in the 1920s. and apparently that just -- just his scrap books filled ten large
boxes. i mean everything was saved. seating diagrams, charts, songs. in this book, i can find minutes of minutes of meetings in 1897 and see who was late on their dues. you had to pay $1 a year. some people hadn't paid and they were kicked out. it's wonderful. i've only scratched the surface. >> this year's dinner at the renaissance hotel in washington, d.c. for those who wonder what happens inside that room, explain. >> the whole appoint of the dinner and the club, unlike white house association fighting for coverage issues, that's the main function, not throwing the dinner. gridiron, the main function is
the dinner. 2600 like the correspondence dinner. 600 people and it is in between courses you have two skits. one skit, about eight songs lampooning the democrats, one skit same number of songs lampooning republicans. after the democratic skits you have a speaker representing the democratic party. this year it's virginia governor terry mcauliffe. he speak and hopefully be humorous. after republican speech, the skit will be they are year republican governor scott walker. at the end of the night, president obama will be speak, be funny. different presidents have had different approaches. president clinton was the first president to bring videos. some of them were hilarious.
president obama, i think he was a video one year. but basically, funny speeches. >> basically gridiron dinner and its history, what has surprised you the most in early research? >> that's a good question. the biggest frustration, because so much was off the record, i would like to know what was in the speeches by early presidents. the most intriguing incident i've come across was a president of the united states almost came to physical blows with one of the senators. >> explain. >> president theodore roosevelt had in what historians see as a real blot on his record, had
basically fired without retirement benefits 160 african-american troops in texas. and senator took up the cause and was very loud protesting the way president roosevelt treated him. they were sort of sparked by a cartoon that was in the dinner program, which looking at that today is a pretty racist cartoon. they got into -- president roosevelt said i'm not waiting until 10:30. i want to give a speech now. he gave a speech ripping into senator foraker. he ended up on