Right about now, Mark Smith, the White House Correspondents Association’s outgoing president is probably thinking some very unkind thoughts about his successor Steve Scully and it all has to do with the most underreported story of the weekend – Stephen Colbert’s starring turn as the “featured entertainment” at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
If you’ve never heard of this event at all, it’s because it’s televised on C-Span. Unless you’re a political junkie, you probably know the rerun dates of Xena better than where to find C-Span on your cable menu. However, you may have heard of the many gentle funnies spawned at this dinner – last year, Laura Bush hit the headlines after she described herself as a Desperate Housewife and poked fun at her husband’s inability to pronounce the word “nuclear” at this same occasion while her husband chuckled genially from the dais.
This year, the President stood up to speak – right next to his TV doppelganger Steve Bridges. Real Bush and Fake Bush did a funny ha-ha little routine where they once again made fun of Real Bush’s continuing inability to pronounce the word “nuclear.” Well, that explains the First Lady’s obsession with education – it must be frustrating when your grown husband can’t learn one word in a whole year.
Finally, amidst much applause and hilarity, the President and his TV Twin wound up their act and sat down. Meanwhile, an unseen commentator (probably under orders from Steve Scully, who happens to work for C-Span) informed the audience at home that this dinner is famous not for its “featured entertainment” but for its flip Presidential addresses and the gathering of the illustrious from the world of journalism – and Hollywood, I noticed. But then, George Clooney is very hard not to notice, not to mention James Denton. Also in the crowd were Alex Trebek, Ludacris, Ben Rothlisberger, and Laurence Fishburne. A little something for everyone.
Then Mark Smith got up to introduce Stephen Colbert. While he’d mentioned before that he was not too familiar with Colbert’s work, he now explained that his unfamiliarity extended to the fact that his company, Associated Press, had been identified as a “Threat to America” on Colbert’s show. Why? It failed to attribute the genesis of the word “truthiness” to Colbert.
At this point you know two things – a) Mark Smith is a hermit and b) Mark Smith has no idea what lies in store for him. After all, Colbert’s the man who, back in the day, said the Correspondents’ Dinners were a chance for the Press and the White House to reaffirm that “We are both entrenched oligarchies with a stake in the survival of the status quo.”
A part of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show fake news circuit, Colbert hams it up four nights a week on The Colbert Report as a fact-hating, bear-loathing, liberal-despising, megalomaniac of a TV pundit. On Saturday night, he chose to remain in character as he expressed his love for the president with whom, he said, he had a lot in common.
“We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol,” he explained. “We’re not members of the ‘fact-inista.’ We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. But that’s because you looked it up in a book.”
A little later he offered a twist on what he calls his “neo-neocon” beliefs – “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.”
Jaws dropped and the smile slowly slid off the president’s face as the room laughed a bit uncomfortably. They didn’t show Mark Smith’s face but I think that’s because he was hiding under the table. Colbert went on, “I believe in this president. Now, I know there’s some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
By this time, the crowd nearest the President had apparently noticed that the leader of the free world didn’t find his admirer nearly as funny or charming as his doppelganger referring to his wife as “caliente.” The air grew thicker and the chuckles fainter even as Colbert calmly forged ahead on other topics, making this the one must-see moment in C-Span history.
“Fox News,” Colbert then pointed out, “Gives you both sides of every story, the President’s side and the Vice President’s side.” But he was disappointed in the rest of them. “Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, W.M.D. intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew. But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions, he’s the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.”
George Clooney must have laughed heartily, but he and Helen Thomas were probably the only two who did. The rest of the room decided to crawl into the valley of depression the president was by then inhabiting. Laura Bush, meanwhile, creditably portrayed Medusa. Alas for her, she was unable to turn Colbert into stone as he then acknowledged the great big elephant in the room. “Joe Wilson is here, the most famous husband since Desi Arnaz. And of course he brought along his lovely wife Valerie Plame. Oh, my god! Oh, what have I said. I am sorry, Mr. President, I meant to say he brought along his lovely wife, Joe Wilson’s wife.”
Had it been any other network, the camera would then have cut to Karl Rove’s face. However, Steve Scully was probably standing with a knife at the cameraman’s throat by then so all we saw was Valerie Plame throwing her head back to laugh.
Colbert wound up with an ‘audition’ tape he’d made for the post of press secretary. Let’s just say it made Scott McClellan look good by comparison. Or it would have if it hadn’t been busy pillorying him. Finally, the tape ended… with Colbert screaming in horror as he falls prey to a beady eyed Helen Thomas on a quest for the truth and nothing but. And you could almost feel the tension snap as the evening drew to a close.
The President perfunctorily shook hands and muttered something [Colbert says he said “Good job!”] before scuttling out the door with his wife, who merely inclined her head when Colbert paused by her chair. A phalanx of official types gathered on the opposite side of the dais to huddle and confer even as Colbert laughed and talked to members of the audience – from the look of things he was accepting compliments rather than spitballs and brick bats.
As C-Span began to once more air the arrivals and departures of various guests — Helen Thomas delightfully mugging for the cameras, Valerie Plame looking like what every Bond girl wants to be, and George Clooney lost in a sea of women — I sat back on my couch and picked up my jaw from the floor.
I mean, the jokes weren’t that funny – they were the kind that make you grin more than hold on to your stomach and the faithful will notice that some of the material was recycled from the show. But in a world obsessed with adapting oneself to the audience in a vain attempt to be loved by more and more people, Stephen Colbert stuck to his fake-pundit guns. He didn’t pull his punches, he wasn’t intimidated by a milieu that was far different from his own [or if he was, he kept it to himself] and he was exactly who he is on his show.
Put in a room with the President of the United States, administration officials, lawmakers and the men and women who bring you news of them, Stephen Colbert did something that should make every American proud.
He exercised the rights given to him by the Constitution of his country to speak his mind and to speak it freely even in the face of power. In those minutes I was reminded that in this country, in these United States, the citizen retains the ultimate power.
Kudos, Mr. Colbert. Too bad hardly anybody wants to tell this story.