This is all off the record…

Several weeks ago I got the chance to go to the Gridiron Dinner, a venerable Washington institution in which the Washington press corps dines with the political big wigs. The audience includes governors (including Eliot Spitzer, just before he was caught with his, uh, pants down), senators, representatives, cabinet members, and the president.

My seat was to be with my fellow USA TODAYers, but at the last moment, my seat had to go to somebody else. Not to worry, I was told, we’ll get you another seat.

I figured my seat would be someplace in the kitchen, if I was lucky. But first things first.

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The dinner was set for Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Of course, I have class at American until 5, and that’s clear across town. Meanwhile, the Gridiron Dinner isn’t just a formal affair — it is the formal affair: white tie and tails. What to do? Wear my tux to class? Change in the lobby of the hotel? Change in my car? Bingo!

After class I zipped downtown and parked in the giant open-air lot across from the hotel. For guys, changing in the car isn’t that big of a deal — even into formal wear. So I stripped and re-clothed in just a few minutes. As I was making the last adjustments, an old man in a Toyota Camry pulls up behind me. Out pops David Broder, the Dean of the Washington press corps. Decked to the nines with a medal around his neck (and orthopedic shoes on his feet), he joked, “don’t worry, I won’t tell.”

Once inside, I hobnobbed with the other luminaries from my office. While we quaffed our pre-dinner drinks, we noted Ken Burns (he didn’t even get a haircut for the Gridiron), D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Helen Thomas, Turd Bloss… I mean, Karl Rove, William Saffire, and on and on.

Then it was time to find our seats. I had been informed that I’d be seated at Table 6, so I wandered in and started looking for my name. Naturally, I started at the back. Then slowly I walked up the aisle. Eventually I got close to the head table. This is where President Bush, the First Lady, Chief Roberts, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others would soon be sitting. I felt uncomfortable even approaching the table. At any minute someone would stop me. “Sir, what are you doing here?”

And then I found my placard: first seat next to the head table.

During dinner, I was introduced to the Chief Roberts. As it happened, I had been reading a couple of books about the recent changes (including his own placement) to the Supreme Court. I asked him about them. I’d love to tell you what he said, but… it’s off the record.

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