COLLEGE PARK (3/6/18) — As president of one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism organizations, University of Maryland alumnus David Lightman (’71) spent months preparing for one of Washington’s signature events: the Gridiron Club and Foundation’s annual dinner.
Lightman, an adjunct lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and former managing editor of The Diamondback, is serving a one-year term as the 133-year-old club’s president.
On Saturday, he introduced the event’s guest of honor, President Donald Trump, and sat with him through dinner. Lightman began the evening with a speech that playfully poked fun at the president and pushed back against Trump’s criticism of the press.
“You alternate between humor and some serious talk about our business,” said Lightman, congressional editor for McClatchy Newspapers in Washington. He added: “You want to set the tone. We singe, but we don’t burn. We take ourselves seriously but, at this event, not too seriously.”
In a recent interview with Merrill College staff, Lightman spoke about Saturday’s dinner, Trump and how the University of Maryland helped him get to where he is.
Merrill College: After President Trump declined to attend the dinner last year, was there doubt he’d accept the Gridiron’s invitation this year?
Lightman: There’s always doubt, that’s not unique to Trump. You start asking late in the fall. In my case, I went to Hope Hicks, the communications director, and Sarah Sanders, the press secretary. We met in early December. It was a very good meeting. And I laid out our case why he should come, and there’s nothing unusual about that. And they said “fine, we’ll take it to the president and see.”
And then I stayed in touch, largely with Hope, over the next few weeks and months and she was very professional, very cordial. And it was Presidents’ Day, February 19, she sent me a note saying “OK, you can make the announcement.”
Were you surprised?
No, no. … Again, you go back to other presidents, [Barack] Obama only came three out of eight times. I don’t remember how many times [George W.] Bush came. There are so many variables here, you know, what is his schedule, what are his other obligations? You just don’t know. I was pleased.
Describe the week leading up to the dinner.
Last week, you get all kinds of Secret Service briefings and White House briefings. And then, on the evening of the Gridiron — me and my family get to go — the Secret Service escorts us to a certain area, where we wait. The vice president came in first, shook hands. We talked informally. He then went to the podium.
Then the president came, the first lady, and we took pictures. And then after the pictures, the Marine Band, which plays at the Gridiron, plays “Hail to the Chief.” The announcer says “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, escorted by Mr. and Mrs. David Lightman. He goes first, my wife is second, I go third. We walk in, take our seats and the program begins.
First, we have something called “Music in the Air.” The lights go out, four singers at the front of the room sing a capella, very briefly. The minute they’re done, I get up at the podium and give what’s called “The Speech in the Dark” — this is a Gridiron tradition. The lights are out. As a speaker, it makes it a lot easier because you can’t see anybody. Or, as somebody advised me, you don’t have to worry about looking up at the audience or making eye contact, you just read it. Although habit is, I still make eye contact.
Tell me about the speech.
You sort of set the tone for the evening. … You alternate between humor and some serious talk about our business. So, in other words, I would say to the president, “I didn’t think the president would come because he doesn’t like eating in hotels he doesn’t own.”
But then I’ll talk about, “Mr. President, we don’t do fake news.” And at that point, I segued into the fate of Austin Tice, who was working for McClatchy and other organizations in Syria when he was abducted five-and-a-half years ago. And I said: “We don’t do fake news, Mr. President. Austin Tice wasn’t doing fake news when he was kidnapped in Syria.” …
We, McClatchy, had invited his parents, who are right up there, and I introduce them. And later on, in fact, in the program they came over the podium and I introduced them personally. …
The Gridiron, we said, has three rules. Now remember, this a 133-year-old club. One of them is … ladies are always present. And I said, “but thank you for coming anyway, Mr. Vice President.”
Again, you want to set the tone. We singe, but we don’t burn. We take ourselves seriously but, at this event, not too seriously.
Could you see the president’s reactions?
There was one joke … I said to the audience “you can’t see him, but he really liked that joke.”
Was that the one about Trump calling reporters and pretending to be his P.R. guy?
I think that was it, yeah. … That’s a true story. In 1993 I was the Hartford Courant’s Washington bureau chief and … the House committee was doing a hearing on Native American casinos. He was furious because he felt they were undercutting his Atlantic City business. And he was out in the hall waiting and complaining that “these are Indians that don’t look like Indians to me.” And I wrote it. And the next day, I do get a call from his lawyer.
Saturday night [at the Gridiron dinner], I recalled the incident and I said “At least I think it was his lawyer. The guy who called me told me what a great guy Donald Trump is, ‘the best.'”
And I looked at Trump and said: “Actually, it sounded a lot like you.” And he liked that.
Then President Trump spoke?
Much later. I give my speech, the Marine Band comes on, the Marine singer sings the national anthem. Then, the Marine Band plans the service songs and veterans stand up according to their service. We do an opening skit, we do eight or nine Democratic songs, [New Orleans] Mayor Mitch Landrieu speaks for the Democrats. Then we do eight or nine Republican songs. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas spoke for the Republicans. Then I do a toast to the president, and he was very pleased with that.
Then, he gets up and speaks. He closes the night. He has the last word. We advise him, “We’d like you to speak for up to 10 minutes.” He spoke, I think, for 30 — that’s fine. Whatever he wants. And then we sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and that’s it.
Was Trump’s speech what you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect, I really didn’t. I’ve seen him speak at the campaign trail, I’ve seen him speak at the White House. This is a very unusual setting. Because again, you need to be both lighthearted but also somewhat serious at times. It’s a very tricky thing.
I’ve written thousands of stories, and writing this speech — and granted I had the help of a speechwriter, who did quite a bit — still was very difficult in trying to set the right tone. So I’m sure he went through the same thing.
Did Trump seem to enjoy himself?
I sat next to him all night. He was a very good dinner guest. We spoke, we had nice conversations about various topics, which we promised to keep private.
People came up to him, he was very good with people. As the night went on, they started asking for autographs. He did enjoy himself, I know that for a fact because I’ve been in touch with Sarah Sanders and Hope Hicks, and he tweeted that, actually, yesterday. Yeah, he liked it.
Given the relationship Trump has with the press, was this year any different than past Gridiron dinners?
Every president has a contentious relationship with the press.
I think if you were to go back to 2003 and talk to reporters about how they got along with the Bush administration as the Iraq War was unfolding [it was contentious and] the press was always complaining about access through the Obama administration.
I don’t mean to sugarcoat what’s going on now, but the relationship is always contentious.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I know it’s corny, but really I started here at The Diamondback. I walked in and asked to write. And I wrote sports and then they moved me over to the A section, I eventually became managing editor.
Through the Diamondback I was able to get internships; first in Hagerstown, then later in Southern California. You know, I always wanted to be a reporter. But I didn’t know any reporters, I had no connections, my parents aren’t journalists, nobody in my neighborhood was a journalist.
But coming to Maryland and working through The Diamondback and working through some of the professors in the journalism school … they were a wonderful help for me.
I know it’s corny, but none of this would have happened without the support and the mentoring from the University of Maryland and The Diamondback. … I can’t say enough about this school and how it’s helped me.
For more information, contact:
Alexander A. Pyles