Why Do We Still Do Gridiron Speeches, Again?

Longtime Gridiron dinner speechwriter Eric Schnure sees DC "silly season" speeches as an antidote to the bitterness of our current politics.

There are lessons in laughter.

One of my proudest professional associations is being a “Friend of the Gridiron,” the oldest journalistic club in Washington. It is best known for its annual spring dinner, celebrating the First Amendment and featuring the U.S. Marine Band and musical skits lampooning the media, our leaders, and the current state of affairs. The Gridiron is many things – lacking material is not one of them.

Of course, there are also speeches. After this past Saturday and counting the smaller and intimate winter dinners, varying in degree from offering random jokes to writing full text, I’ve now had the privilege of contributing to more than 50 different Gridiron speeches. 

That gives me at least a little perspective. (Yes, it also makes me old. But I’ll make the jokes in this post, thank you very much.)

Specifically, here are three take-aways.

First, we want our leaders to take their jobs seriously. But we don’t always want or need our leaders to take themselves so seriously. Being self-deprecating requires, and often demonstrates in an understated way, self-confidence. But it also tells an audience, “Hey, we’re not that different; I’m kind of like you.” A common thread ties together relatability, likeability, and credibility. So leaders are smart to remember: when you can relate, you can connect.

Second, the Gridiron motto is to “singe, but never burn.” Candidly, it’s becoming harder to distinguish between the two. Each year the singes get a tiny bit hotter, potentially leaving a more lasting mark. Still, with jokes and lyrics that spread across the entire spectrum from clever to corny to cringe, the Gridiron remains a testament to the idea that you can be sharp without cutting. It endures because it’s respectful and good-natured. Knocking other people down isn’t the only way, nor is it the best way, to score points.

Finally, an antidote to our current politics. You don’t have to spend too much time on Google to find criticisms of the Gridiron (and the other Washington DC “silly season” dinners, too). Is it little self-indulgent and a lot anachronistic? Perhaps. Does the coziness between reporters and the leaders they cover shape that coverage? I’m not sure.

But I know this:

On Saturday night, the governor of one of the reddest states in the country and the governor of a blue state, a woman who many think will be on a future national ticket, enjoyed themselves thoroughly. And they did so not laughing at each other, but laughing with each other.

On Saturday night, the President of the United States reaffirmed, with his presence and his remarks, why a free press here is vital to democracy everywhere.

And on Saturday night, or maybe it was very early Sunday morning, we went home feeling a little more patriotic and a little more hopeful.

Not bad for a few jokes – a lesson we can all take to heart.

Leave a Reply

Download Whitepaper

Thank you for your interest. Please enter your email address to view the report.