Friday, September 22 , 2017, 6:54 am | Fair 57º


Mark Shields: Washington Pauses to Laugh at Itself at Gridiron Dinner

How unpopular is Washington in the rest of the country?

While it’s true that Congress as an institution has never been highly prized by most Americans, many of us continued to hold a soft spot for our own member of Congress who, we were sure, was different from and better than his or her ethically challenged congressional colleagues who would steal a hot stove and then go back for the smoke.

Well, it turns out, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, that a majority of us would just as soon fire everybody in Congress. Here’s the question: “If there were a place on your ballot that allowed you to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including your own representative, would you do it?” By a solid 54 percent to 42 percent margin, American voters answered “yes” to giving the boot to everyone now in office on Capitol Hill.

So for a much-needed break from the negative news, March brought Washington's annual Gridiron Dinner, where there are by tradition, after 129 years, just three speakers — a Democrat, a Republican and the president or his designated hitter — who are expected to be humorous. And this year’s event provided some chuckles.

Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a Tea Party favorite who has never been afflicted with self-doubt, was the Republican speaker. After acknowledging that he had already, in just one year, alienated many of his GOP Senate colleagues, Cruz addressed Secretary of State John Kerry, President Barack Obama’s substitute: “John Kerry crossed the world to be here. What a treat it must be for him to share the dais with one of only three senators who voted against his nomination to be secretary of state. Let’s put it behind us, Mr. Secretary, you squeaked by with 97 votes. That’s fine. We in the ‘Gang of Three’ have other fights to lose.”

Cruz, a Harvard-educated lawyer, spoke of his much-criticized confrontation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: “I was accused of acting like some pompous know-it-all. We’re all familiar with the type, and at Harvard Law School, there is even a word for it: alumni.” Referring to his “Born in Canada business,” he said: “Canadians are so polite, mild-mannered, modest, unassuming, open-minded. Thank God my family fled that oppressive influence before it could change me.” By being so openly self-deprecating, Cruz surprised, and perhaps even neutralized, many in the audience who had not been his fans.

Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who is running for that same job now as a Democrat, was the Democratic speaker. He introduced himself, admitting, “I’m a guy with a healthy ego. But every time my ego gets a little bit out of control, my wife, Carole, reminds me that John McCain considered me and Sarah Palin for vice president and decided Sarah was more qualified.”

The evening’s unexpected star was Kerry, who, after complimenting the formally attired journalists in their white tie and tails, needled the White House: “President Obama asked me to tell you: ‘If you like your rented tuxedo, you can keep it.’” Kerry praised the evening’s Democratic speaker before asking, “Is Charlie Crist still here? I had to check — he’s always so quick to leave a party.” Then, turning to Cruz, he added: “Ted was actually only one of three senators who voted against my confirmation. In his defense, it was only because he doesn’t believe that men should be secretaries.” If Kerry had been half as loose and funny during his 2004 campaign, he could have won and then been forced to explain just why he had picked John Edwards to be his vice president.

It was a rare night of bipartisan laughter and of public figures not taking themselves too seriously. Washington needs a lot more of that.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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