Colbert Was Funny And Dead-On, Except To Those He Was Targeting
Image courtesy of Salon.com
You’ve probably read a good deal today about Stephen Colbert’s bravura performance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner over the weekend. Since the media doesn’t like being exposed to their faces as willing tools of the GOP establishment, you heard more today about Bush's sense of humor than you have about Colbert's sarcastic destruction of both the media and its masters, the White House/Fox News sledgehammer. As the Post's Dan Froomkin noted today, Colbert managed to destroy the hero-worship that the Beltway whores planned for their master that night, and made them uncomfortable at the same time.
Unlike other bloggers, I decided not to spend a lot of energy today moaning about this, since I and many others already expected such coverage. Rather, let me share with you Michael Scherer’s analysis over at Salon.com. In a few paragraphs, Scherer tells you exactly why Colbert took down the media and Mighty Wurlitzer so effectively that night, which explains why you haven’t heard much about it from those he skewered, unless it is to complain that he wasn’t funny or too nasty to the poor babies.
After all, these are the same bastards who laughed at Bush's self-mocking video a couple years ago when he looked around the White House for the missing WMDs.
Colbert is not just another comedian with barbed punch lines and a racy vocabulary. He is a guerrilla fighter, a master of the old-world art of irony. For Colbert, the punch line is just the addendum. The joke is in the setup. The meat of his act is not in his barbs but his character -- the dry idiot, "Stephen Colbert," God-fearing pitchman, patriotic American, red-blooded pundit and champion of "truthiness." "I'm a simple man with a simple mind," the deadpan Colbert announced at the dinner. "I hold a simple set of beliefs that I live by. Number one, I believe in America. I believe it exists. My gut tells me I live there."
Then he turned to the president of the United States, who sat tight-lipped just a few feet away. "I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world."Amen, brother.
It was Colbert's crowning moment. His imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head -- Bill O'Reilly meets Scott McClellan -- uncovered the inner workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate. He reversed and flattened the meaning of the words he spoke. It's a tactic that cultural critic Greil Marcus once called the "critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems." Colbert's jokes attacked not just Bush's policies, but the whole drama and language of American politics, the phony demonstration of strength, unity and vision. "The greatest thing about this man is he's steady," Colbert continued, in a nod to George W. Bush. "You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday."
It's not just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark. We already know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals hate Rumsfeld or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic, right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more "truthiness" than truth.
Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone's clubby self-satisfaction. (Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke Cunningham playing poker at the Watergate?) Similarly, White House spinmeisters are used to frontal assaults on their policies, which can be rebutted with a similar set of talking points. But there is no easy answer for the ironist. "Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function," wrote David Foster Wallace, in his seminal 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram." "It's critical and destructive, a ground clearing."
So it's no wonder that those journalists at the dinner seemed so uneasy in their seats. They had put on their tuxes to rub shoulders with the president. They were looking forward to spotting Valerie Plame and "American Idol's" Ace Young at the Bloomberg party. They invited Colbert to speak for levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists are all, at heart, creatures of this silly conversation. We trade in talking points and consultant-speak. We too often depend on empty language for our daily bread, and -- worse -- we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert was attacking us as well.
I don’t expect much to change from Colbert’s performance Saturday night amongst the whores inside the Beltway. But I am planning to add a tag line at the end of my emails from now on every time I send an email to a member of the Beltway media: