Bill Clinton stands in for President Obama at the Gridiron dinner.

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March 21 2010 5:30 PM

Vintage Bill Clinton

The former president stands in for the current president at the Gridiron dinner.

The relationship between President Obama and former President Bill Clinton gained some amusing new contours last night. Clinton stood in for Obama at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner. He was in his best form, folksy, earnest and making a good amount of fun of himself—his vanity, his advanced age, and his legacy. Perhaps his best line came when he outlined the prospects for health care reform. "It may not happen in my lifetime, or Dick Cheney's, but hopefully by Easter," he said referring to their respective heart troubles.

The evening marked the 125th anniversary of the organization of Washington journalists, of which I am a member, in which the men wear white tie and tails and club members perform skits poking fun at the sitting president and other politicians. Clinton joked that the evening was taking place on the anniversary of Douglas MacArthur's "I shall return" speech.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

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The theme of the jokes from both the current and former presidents was Clinton's desire to get back into the presidency. "I've been wanting to stand in for President Obama for a long time," Clinton pretended to confide. Obama spoke to the dinner via videotape, appearing on an enormous video screen that was wheeled into the ballroom at the last minute. He said when he called Clinton to stand in for him, the former president said, "Let me clear my schedule for the next three years."

The good-natured repartee was a sign that the hatchet had been buried since the bruising primaries, but it was also a reminder of how tense it got at times. Remember that Obama called out Clinton for "triangulation and poll-driven politics" that built power for Clinton but not his party, a point Obama elaborated on in one debate. This is what led Obama to famously pick Reagan over Clinton when talking about leaders who had genuinely transformed the country. Obama's relationship with Hillary Clinton seems to be thriving, but you can imagine that the relationship between the 42nd and 44th president is full of rich and complex material.

Clinton joked that Obama was too busy to attend because he was "polishing his Nobel Peace Prize." Clinton said Obama asked: "You've got one of these yet?" When Clinton said no, he said Obama went on to remind him that Al Gore and Jimmy Carter had them. (Gore, Clinton said, wears his Peace Prize around his neck).

The Nobel humor played on the widely reported stories reporting that Clinton was irritated Obama won the award before he did. That wasn't the only sore spot Clinton touched. Clinton joked that the club members shouldn't be worried about Obama missing the dinner last year and this year because Jesse Jackson missed them in 1984 and 1988. It was a reference to a similar remark Clinton made about the insignificance of Obama's victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Several Democratic leaders and pundits said Clinton used the analogy to highlight Obama's race. (When the audience laughed, Clinton said he hoped they were laughing at themselves—he has widely railed against the press's interpretation of his remarks).

Some other Clinton zingers: noting that he speaking on the first night of spring, "otherwise known to Al Gore as proof of global warming." Speaking of the sitting vice president, who also did not attend the dinner, he said, "Vice President Biden, God bless his mouth." Speaking of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, whose combative and profane ways have been the subject of so much scrutiny lately, the former president said, "I found Rahm. I created him. I made him what he is today. I am so sorry."

It is customary for the sitting president to attend, but Obama was scheduled to be in the Far East. When he delayed the trip, he didn't insist on attending the dinner. Not that he was dying to, but politically it wouldn't have looked great with the health care legislation still unresolved. Obama would be criticized either for looking overconfident or, if the bill ultimately failed, for looking unserious.

To show his serious side, former President Clinton ended his remarks by talking about the earthquake in Haiti. He asked journalists not to forget the tragedy there and to hold relief organizations accountable. He also praised Obama for his efforts on health care reform. To demonstrate just how difficult the task was, Clinton quoted a long passage from Machiavelli's The Prince. "There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order."

Clinton arrived nearly an hour late to the dinner, maintaining a reputation for lateness that has followed him after his presidency. He ended the evening in Clinton fashion, too—chatting and taking pictures with the waiters who cleared the tables after the famous people had left the room.