Barack Obama skipped the Gridiron Club dinner, and no president had done that since Grover Cleveland.

But Sam Zell skipped it too. If he’d wanted it, Zell had a place at the head table next to the president — if the president showed up.

The seat belonged to Zell as CEO of the Tribune Company because the president of the Gridiron Club is Dick Cooper — formerly of the Los Angeles Times but now, technically, of the Tribune Company’s combined Washington bureau. Since Zell wasn’t going to the March 21 dinner, his seat was passed down to Tony Hunter, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Hunter came up through circulation, and as someone at the Tribune Company puts it, he’s in his element speaking to truck drivers. The head table at the Gridiron Club dinner alongside the president might not have been a comfortable milieu.

Hunter possibly thought so. A few days before the dinner he gave his seat to Gerould Kern, editor of the Tribune. 

This choice might have miffed Cooper, who I’m told wasn’t asked which company bigwig he wanted at the head table with him. And it might have miffed Russ Stanton, editor of the LA Times, who probably would have been Cooper’s choice. And I’m pretty sure it miffed Gridiron Club purists who felt Kern — who found himself (in Obama’s absence) between Vice President Biden and the governor of Michigan, while his wife was between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the secretary of the treasury — had been seated beyond his station.

But I hear a “whatever…” outlook predominated. Did Kern’s presence at the head table dis the Gridiron Club? Not nearly as much, I suppose, as Obama’s absence did.  

We should mourn the chit-chat that wasn’t.

Obama: What’s up at the Tribune?

Kern: Soon as I get back to Chicago I’m canning our foreign correspondents. RedEye doesn’t have any.

Obama: Geez. Is that something else Blagojevich demanded?

By my count,  there were some 20 people at the Gridiron Club dinner on the Tribune Company’s dime — which in this case came to $300 a head. Add hotels and air fare and whatnot and it all comes to a significant piece of change dished out by a company in bankruptcy. Actually, against the company’s $13 billion in debts, what it comes to isn’t significant at all. But think about the cost in terms of keeping Kim Barker in place to cover Afghanistan and Pakistan a few weeks longer and the money chafes.

But let’s give the company credit. In better times it would have sent a delegation twice the size to the Gridiron Club dinner. Not only that… It’s traditional for the company the club president works for to throw a party the night before the dinner. An orchestra, entertainment, a couple hundred guests. Figure a cost of about $50 a person.

The Tribune Company didn’t do that. It didn’t throw any party at all. 

Company spokesman Gary Weitman (he was there), gave me a statement. “We committed to sponsor the Gridiron long before we filed for Chapter 11,” he said. “Event contribution is part of the group’s membership agreement.”

Weitman went on, “The media industry sees Gridiron as a valuable business investment. It’s an event that builds relationships by providing 5-6 hours of close access to top politicians — ­ access reporters would find difficult if not impossible to get. Finally, Tribune cut the expected, standard, traditional commitment expected of the President’s company by more than half for this year’s event, in recognition of the industry’s and company’s revenue declines.”