Call it a diplomat’s lucky day: in Washington in the spring of 2017, I found myself seated next to Jeff Bezos at the Gridiron dinner. The Washington Post had thought it fit to invite me to their table and put me next to the Boss. Ambassadors are usually considered safe in such situations: they can keep the small talk ticking, not slurp on the soup or knock over wine glasses. I suppose I managed all that for the next couple of hours, but many would consider it a waste of a golden opportunity. Nothing tangible to show for an evening spent with the richest man in the world: no post-retirement sinecure as head of Amazon’s government relations, or special envoy to new worlds in space for his Blue Origin company. Not even a free lifelong Amazon Prime membership.
I also did not keep notes, being still of an age—a sprightly 59—when one thinks that memory is infallible. What I do recall is how much Bezos laughed, and I have no illusions that it was because of my witty chatter. He has admitted to this habit in his book Invent & Wander: “I don’t know why I have this laugh. It’s just that I laugh easily and often.” Less charitably, others have referred to his guffaw as a “seal bark” or a “raptor’s laugh”. I suppose he simply couldn’t care less: a man can laugh any which way he wants when he has $1,50,000 falling into his piggy bank every minute.
But the occasion, too, encouraged laughter. The Gridiron, like the much larger White House Correspondents’ dinner, is a time-honoured annual Beltway event where politicians, celebrities and journalists get together to break bread, let their hair down and crack jokes about each other and, more importantly, about themselves. It is a formal sit-down evening of the white-tie variety, where the wine and conversation flow easily amid musical skits, and self-deprecating or sharply funny speeches. Though presidents do not attend every year, each one of them with the exception of Grover Cleveland has spoken at the Gridiron at least once since its inception in 1885.
In 2017, smarting under press attacks, Donald Trump had refused to attend. Instead, Mike Pence bravely filled the breach and actually cracked a few good ones at his own expense. Nancy Pelosi roasted him in her speech: “Does the president know you’re here laughing with the enemies of the people?” Pelosi asked. “It’s OK, Mr Vice President. People here can keep a secret... unlike at the White House.”
By 2018 Trump had gathered enough good humour to attend the dinner and did unexpectedly well at the jokes. Pence, he said, “starts out each morning asking everyone, ‘Has he been impeached yet?’” In retrospect, after two impeachments and the Pence-Trump rift, this sounds eerily ironical. Referring to media tales about the rapid White House turnover and an unhappy Melania, Trump said that the question on everybody’s mind was, “Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?”
Joe Biden will no doubt continue to attend these events, in the true Obama tradition, but the jokes will be less edgy and more mainstream, a bit of the milk toast variety.
Imagine for a moment a similar dinner in Delhi, all rangoli, diyas, traditional thalis and decorous kurta-pyjamas. It might just work. It might take the shrillness out of television, the bile out of tweets, the starch out of egos. We might all begin to take ourselves less seriously. We might even, with luck, develop a sense of humour.