WASHINGTON – Good old-fashioned power can still dress up in white tie and tails.
That was the dress code at the 128th Gridiron Spring Dinner last weekend, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar represented the Democrats in the capital city press corps’ annual celebration of power, prestige and unabashed insider exclusivity.
It was a night worthy of Downton Abbey, and not a bad venue for a scion of the Iron Range whom the New York Times called a “presidential contender.” That’s why you speak at these things, or get invited to speak. It’s a chicken-and-egg power equation.
“I’m under no illusion here,” Klobuchar said in a self-deprecating nod to her growing reputation as an up-and-coming woman on the national Democratic scene. “I know I was picked to speak tonight from a binder full of women.”
Echoes of Mitt Romney! Boom!
Of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton is in that binder too, so few of Washington’s elites are leafing too far into the book of future presidential contenders until the former secretary of state’s intentions are sorted out.
But Klobuchar is only 52, meaning that her political horizon stretches out far beyond 2016. On this night, she was standing nervously before 650 of the most influential people in national politics, including Stillwater native Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, and one of the major reporter attractions at the dinner of roasted sea bass and cranberry bean succotash. Clearly, the stakes were enormous for Klobuchar and her GOP counterpart, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also came to the Gridiron’s dais with obvious aspirations.
It helps to be funny at these things, but it’s more important not to flat-out bomb. The list of casualties from similar extracurricular outings is long: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and her sideways camera rebuttal to the 2011 State of the Union address; Jindal’s own widely panned State of the Union response; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s now infamous gulp of water, which Obama mocked before a knowing Gridiron audience.
Klobuchar might have preferred to go first. Jindal knocked it out of the park with his own brand of self-deprecating humor, poking fun at his previous State of the Union flop (see above).
For Klobuchar, revising her remarks at the head table even as Jindal spoke, the pressure was palpable.
“That was good,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the Democrats’ top dogs in Washington, told Klobuchar while she waited her turn to speak. “Did you practice?”
Improvising, she turned Schumer’s poke into one of her best laugh lines.
Nobody’s talking about any of the Gridiron speeches anymore, meaning the evening was a success for everyone involved. Obama rewarded Klobuchar by calling Al Franken Minnesota’s “second-funniest” senator.
She can now add that to her résumé as she seeks to broaden her national image from “Minnesota Nice” to something that could serve as an actual political platform.
As Gridiron President Chuck Lewis noted in his introduction, Klobuchar was flattered by speculation about her presidential prospects but “hoped it wouldn’t take away from any speculation that she might get a seat on the Supreme Court.”
But from a Washington perspective, Klobuchar’s ambitions, whatever they are, are inextricably bound to her roots in Minnesota, a state with a reputation to live down in presidential politics (think past contenders Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy).
Even Harold Stassen came up in the Gridiron singers’ ode to Klobuchar, sung to the tune of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie”:
Amy, whatcha gonna do? Minnesota’s curse, could it now be through?