Who Blackballed William Safire?

Chatterbox nearly fell out of his chair when he read, in William Safire’s May 8 column, that Safire had only just been inducted into the Gridiron Club. The Gridiron is a venerable (that is to say, somewhat ridiculous) club for Washington newspapermen and, since the 1970s, newspaperwomen. Every year it puts on a satirical talent show that, mysteriously, is attended by the president of the United States and other Washington big shots. Nancy Reagan famously rid herself of a Marie Antoinette-ish press image by singing “Second Hand Rose” at one such dinner in the 1980s. The club’s active membership is limited to 60 members (to see the full roster, click here), who pay annual dues of about $200. The members divide mainly into two camps:

  1. Those who privately scorn the club and its hoary backslapping traditions but continue to belong, they say, because their publishers expect them to.
  2. Those who take the Gridiron Club terribly seriously, and are offended when Slate columnists phone to ask why Safire, age 70, only just got voted in.

(For obvious reasons, Chatterbox is not at liberty to reveal the names of anyone in Category One, but Category Two appears to include Carl Leubsdorf, who is on the club’s membership committee, and who politely told Chatterbox, “I’m not going to talk about that.”)

Chatterbox felt some embarrassment for Safire as he scanned his Monday paean to the Gridiron (“the Washington newspaper elite … steeped in a bipartisan tradition of good-humored satire; it ‘singes but never burns.’ “). But embarrassment turned to astonishment as he read the following passage:

Though a few singers are pros, the pencil fogies of the Gridiron dress in outrageous costumes and put on an amateur-theatrical set of skits and songs. (In this, my rookie year as a member [italics Chatterbox’s], I appeared in a bunny suit, grimly determined to demonstrate good-sportsmanship.)

What is the point of there being an exclusive Beltway club like the Gridiron if it’s going to exclude William Safire? What possible hierarchy can find room for Joan McKinney of the Baton Rouge Advocate, Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and Alan Emory of the Watertown Daily Times–but not the preeminent Washington columnist employed by the most important newspaper in America?

Ernest “Pat” Furgurson, former Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun (and now an “associated member” because he’s retired), is the Gridiron Club’s historian. He told Chatterbox that such membership oddities are common. Robert Novak is a member; Rowland Evans, his longtime partner, is not. Jack Germond is a member; Jules Witcover, his longtime partner, is not. (Chatterbox should here point out that he has no idea whether Evans or Witcover has ever wanted to be a member; Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his successor, Len Downie, are both said to have declined membership.) One limitation on who gets in, Furgurson said, is the tradition that Washington bureau chiefs get priority treatment when Gridiron berths get handed out (though the Times’ current bureau chief, Michael Oreskes, is not a member). Although there are no formal quotas, each news organization can usually depend on getting only so many slots; and, presumably, the Times didn’t put a premium on getting Safire in.

But it turns out that membership isn’t really determined by the news organizations; it’s determined by the members. Why didn’t the members bring Safire in years ago? Chatterbox uncovered two Safire-specific explanations for his exclusion. The first was that for quite some time, many Gridiron members didn’t think Safire was a “real” journalist, because before he was a columnist he was a government official rather than a shoe-leather reporter. (It doesn’t help that the government job was writing speeches for Richard Nixon. And before that he was a PR man. And proud of it.) The second, and more intriguing, explanation was that Safire was blackballed by UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas, who was then the club’s president, when his name came up several years ago. Thomas, according to two Gridiron members, didn’t like Safire’s views on the Middle East. (Safire, a Jew, is ardently pro-Israel; Thomas is of Lebanese extraction.)

Chatterbox phoned Thomas to ask whether she’d excluded Safire from the Gridiron. She said she wanted to “let bygones be bygones”; she’s glad he’s a member now. Chatterbox then asked whether she’d excluded him because of his views on the Middle East. “I don’t think I’ll talk to you anymore,” she said, and hung up.

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