For Obama, Family Trumps Social Washington

President Obama campaigned on a pledge to bring change to Washington and move away from business as usual. Many people assumed he meant politics -- not necessarily messing around with the long-standing traditions of social Washington, D.C.

But, Obama, who has been more active and visible on the District scene than his predecessor, George W. Bush, is skipping town this weekend and passing on the exclusive Gridiron dinner, an annual off-the-record event that brings together journalists and politicians for a night of song and dance, including skits that poke gentle fun at elected officials.

Obama will be the first president to miss the dinner in his first year in office since Grover Cleveland in 1885.

The Gridiron Club was founded that year by two dozen Washington newspaper writers and has evolved in recent years to include television, electronic and magazine journalists. It is the oldest and most elite club in the nation's capital for journalists.

The White House said the president's absence is simply because of a scheduling conflict and not a rejection of inside-the-Beltway traditions.

Today marks the beginning of spring break for Sidwell Friends School, where Obama's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, are students.

Instead of donning white-tie and tails, the president will depart with his family to the presidential retreat at Camp David for the weekend.

Gridiron Club member and 2008 president Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News dismissed any suggestions of a presidential snub and said it boiled down to a conflict on the calendar.

"Some members are disappointed because everyone was looking forward to having the president there," Leubsdorf said, "but we have no reason to believe the reason he's not coming is anything other than what we were told."

Added one Gridiron Club member: "It's not like people are moping around or anything. It is a disappointment but these things happen."

No Lack of Star Power

Even with Obama's absence, the dinner will not be lacking administration star power. Vice President Joe Biden will step in as the guest of honor.

The main purpose of the Gridiron Club, members say, is to have this annual spring dinner, which brings together journalists, publishers and political officials for a night of revelry and roasting aimed at elected officials. The dinner is always off the record but, inevitably, details emerge quickly.

About 620 people will attend this year's dinner, one of the few white-tie and tails events in the nation's capital. Among the guests are Cabinet members, members of Congress and senior White House officials.

The club's motto -- "singe, but never burn" -- is indicative of the jovial yet biting relationship between the media and the politicians. The club members spend months preparing song and dance routines that take aim at the very same group they cover, the Washington political establishment. Most of the skits are prepared with the president and vice president in mind, but members said this year they may have to make tweaks to reflect Obama's absence.

Presidential Tradition

Most years, the president is the featured guest. In his sixth and final appearance at the Gridiron dinner, Bush entertained the dinner guests with a song, a spoof of the country song "Green Green Grass of Home."

President Clinton attended the dinner six out of his eight years in office and President Reagan attended all eight dinners held while he was in the White House.

The Gridiron Club's Leubsdorf said that President Johnson threatened every year that he would not attend the dinner. One year Johnson declined the formal Gridiron invitation and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was sent in his place. But Johnson made a surprise visit anyway.

Obama has spoken at two previous Gridiron Club events, once at the more low-key winter gathering when he was a senator-elect in 2004 and then as a senator at the spring dinner in 2006.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the featured Republican speaker this year and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has the Democratic honor.

Expanded Beyond Newspapers in 2004

The Gridiron Club started as an organization that was all-male and all newspaper writers. Membership in the club is by invitation only and there are 65 active members.

Longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas was the first woman admitted to the Gridiron and she went on to serve as the first woman president of the organization.

It was not until 2004 that the club expanded its membership to include broadcast, magazine and electronic journalists.

Out of Town but Not Far Away

There has been some grumbling in Washington that Camp David, in Frederick County, Md., is not really "out of town" and that the president could be back in Washington in less than 30 minutes on his Marine One helicopter, or 90 minutes by car, and still make a cameo at the dinner.

But for Obama, family has always come first, even during two long years on the campaign trail. He ducked off the trail to get back to Chicago for a Valentine's Day date with his wife, Michelle, or some quality time with his daughters.

"I think what he is saying is I understand I have a role to play as the president in Washington. My role as father trumps the symbolic role as the president," said Garrett Graff, editor at large at The Washingtonian magazine.

Graff notes that while Obama has hosted numerous social events at the White House in two months, including two formal dinners and several informal Wednesday night gatherings, he has done it on his terms.

"I think he's demonstrating with the Gridiron that tradition and the historical role of the president will only go so far with him," Graff said.

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