I learned of Nancy Reagan’s death while driving to the Sunday reprise of the Gridiron Club’s annual spring dinner show, where more than 600 people annually gather to enjoy what went on the night before without the gowns and full dress suits that have marked the main event for 131 years.
My mind turned quickly back 34 years to March 1982 to that Gridiron weekend when my colleagues and I in only a few minutes helped change the public perception of a first lady whose image had been one of Hollywood glitz and flamboyance at a time of national economic stress and Cold War pressures. There was general resentment that she had bought expensive new china for the White House, borrowed clothes from the top fashion designers and brought her equally flamboyant wealthy California friends onto the staid Washington scene.
How ironic and somehow appropriate, I thought, that this until-then-much-maligned wife of one of the more popular American presidents should pass away on the weekend of the Washington social event that changed all that. The Gridiron’s practice has always been that while it may singe politicians and others, including itself, that it roasts at its premier event each year, it never (well, hardly ever) burns them.
A prominent Russian ambassador to the United States said with a touch of admiration after attending one dinner during the height of strained relations between his country and ours that only in America would such an evening be tolerated.
There is no doubt that some U.S. presidents have found the journalistic whit less palatable than others, but they have borne it stoically in front of the nation’s media moguls, captains of industry, publishers, reporters and other movers and shakers who attend each year. Some have even good naturedly taken part in the elaborately, often bizarrely costumed musical skits.
What began as an organization of 50 newspapermen, and remained that way until a decade ago, has grown and broadened into 65 members who represent the whole spectrum of media organizations. What has remained constant is the format and goal of the club: to spend one evening a year in fellowship in what is otherwise an often-poisonous atmosphere.
It escapes me now who suggested all those years back that Mrs. Reagan take part in the evening’s entertainment, which traditionally consists of Republican and Democratic skits followed by speeches by a figure of both parties. (The president or his representative is the last speaker of the evening.) I was the producer of the show that year, which included a number pointing out the first lady’s proclivity for adorning herself with borrowed clothes. The tune used for the parody was an old Fanny Brice song, Second Hand Rose.
Just before the skit reached that point, Mrs. Reagan excused herself from the head table to “go to the rest room” and, of course, headed for a special dressing room. Her husband took little notice. When the club’s singer began her rendition of the song, a rack with a variety of dresses was wheeled onto the stage. The song took only a few minutes and was well-received by the white-tie-and-gown audience.
As the club singer stepped back, the clothes on the rack parted and through them stepped Nancy Reagan resplendent in a mismatch of tops and skirt and boots and a flower-topped straw Minnie Pearl hat with the price tag hanging down. A stunned audience was utterly silent for a moment and then leapt to its feet. The president of the United States, taken completely by surprise, looked absolutely incredulous, his mouth agape.
When she had finished her own self -deprecating version of the song, the audience, including the president, was on its feet again cheering and applauding wildly.
The next day, the press and radio and television reacted with raves for her performance and commentary was nothing but positive. Almost instantly her image nationally went from derision to admiration. She was the good sport who didn’t take herself too seriously, and later, when she wrote about her White House years, she credited that evening with turning things around for her.
I went home after this year’s show and dusted off the picture of her in that goofy outfit, looking like a bag lady, that she had sent me with “appreciation” only a few weeks after. I cherish it.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.