Friday, January 26, 2007
Last year, as you may recall, Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," was the keynote speaker at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner. You probably read about it, although what you learned depended a lot on where you read the report.
A lot of the initial reports suggested that Colbert wasn't funny and that the audience was unhappy with his show. Later reports, mostly in commentary pieces or on blogs, suggested that he was funny and that the audience did love him. Then a third view emerged: Colbert was funny, but the audience didn't love him because his satire was too pointed.
You can decide for yourself. Google has the complete video at tinyurl.com/lnjpz. My reading is that the audience was mostly bewildered, perhaps because it didn't really know who Colbert was. Comedy Central is not must-see TV in Washington, where the Republicans watch Fox News and the Democrats watch CNN.
Interestingly, as the tape shows, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia seems to be having a wonderful time. He's smart enough to get the jokes, and secure enough not to be bothered by them. Let 'em mock! He's got a lifetime appointment.
Colbert, for those of you tuning in late, adopts the persona of a right-wing talk show host, much like Bill O'Reilly. He does this for satiric purposes, and employs irony -- that is, what he says is not what he means. We are so used to people lying while hoping we think they're telling the truth that people lying hoping that we understand that they're lying can be unnerving.
Colbert called the president his hero. He said: "It is my privilege to celebrate this president. Because we're not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we're not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than in your head? You can look it up. Now I know somebody will say, 'I did look it up and that's not true.' That's because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works."
He also mentioned the media. He congratulated them on their performance early in this Bush administration, noting that they had failed to adequately investigate administration claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that global warming was an unconfirmed theory. "We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to find out."
That may have hit a sore spot. Like congressional Democrats, a lot of reporters are just a wee bit embarrassed by how thoroughly they bought the administration line, particularly during Bush's first term. Sept. 11 made skepticism less fashionable, but journalists, in theory, are supposed to follow the facts and not the fashions. They don't, because journalists are people and people are always influenced by the wisdom of the moment, but they could have tried harder. They're supposed to try harder.
Colbert chastised the press for its later tough questioning of administration officials: "What incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? Nothing satisfies you. Everyone asks for personnel changes, so the White House has personnel changes, and everybody's like, oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. First of all, that's a horrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg."
Now, that's a fabulous line. The reaction to it, a sort of rueful chuckle moving in waves across the audience (presumably as people dredged up "Hindenburg" from their in-mind data banks), suggests that his listeners were having trouble keeping up.
The White House correspondents dinner has long been a sort of Beltway clustergrope for journalists and bureaucrats and second-rate celebrities (these days, an "American Idol" contestant qualifies in the latter category). It dates from an earlier time, when everyone involved was white and male and understood the rules -- and when politicians thought that freedom of the press was important. Then it was about joshing; now it's about spinning.
This year, the group is playing it safe. Rich Little, a comedian who has never had a special on Comedy Central but did appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," has been asked to host. He told his hometown newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that he had promised the organizers that he "would not even mention the word 'Iraq.' " He explained: "They don't want anyone knocking the president. He's really over the coals right now, and he's worried about his legacy."
Colbert: "I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."