Even though Stephen Colbert is being showered with well-deserved praise for his masterful performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, I think something crucial needs to be emphasized — the sheer nerve of it. Imagine if Jonathan Swift had gone into the king’s court and read A Modest Proposal aloud to the assembled nobles (“Are you suggesting we are cannibals, Dr. Swift?”) and you get the idea.
It’s one thing to march into the lion’s den and yank a fistful of hairs from his mane. It’s quite another to march into a den full of people who think they’re lions and rub their noses in the fact that they’re nothing more than fat, spayed tabby cats who are less interested in exposing the powerful than they are in curling up by their feet.
That’s what Stephen Colbert did at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and for his perfidy he will now be subject to their endless mewling and kitty-kat clawing. Even if he loses his nerve and backtracks with an apology — something I don’t think for a second he would actually do — he will always be their target. After all, the eunuchs of the court were often the most devious and vengeful of the players surrounding the king.
Uberblogger Matt Drudge is arching his back and hissing that Colbert’s ratings aren’t as high as the Faux News evening lineup — a pretty sad line of attack, but there will be others. The master narrative now taking shape around that scalding evening is that Colbert the professional comedian got hardly any laughs, while Bush and his doppelganger rocked the house with boffo guffaws. Of course he did! This is, after all, the same crowd that whooped and chuckled a couple of years ago as Bush showed slides and pretended to look for weapons of mass destruction under the furniture. Their laughter is a badge of dishonor. Courting their praise was never Colbert’s goal.
In his book Paradigms Lost, John Simon points out that humor and wit are nearly polar opposites. Humor is inclusive: it invites everyone to join in on the laugh and feel like one of the crowd. Wit is exclusive: it addresses itself only to those who are in the know, and if the other people in the room feel uncomfortable because they don’t get it — hey, that’s a bonus. Colbert’s performance was a display of wit at its most lethally cutting. He went into a room with the most powerful man in the world and his courtiers, and he excluded them from the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If the White House courtiers had an ounce of self-respect, they’d all book a flight to Alaska, find a good-sized ice floe and shove themselves out into the ocean. Instead, they’ll just go about their routines. They may walk funny for a little while, after the way they’ve been used, but after six years of covering the Bush administration, they’re probably accustomed to that kind of thing.