From: Sean Murphy
Sent: Thursday, May 04, 2006 5:00 PM
Subject: And Now For Something REALLY Not Funny
Dear Mr. Cohen:
Give me a personal break, and super size it. And yes, I would like some freedom fries with that.
I’m not in the habit of writing directly to political columnists, particularly ones I tend to agree with more often than not. However, it’s not merely that I disagree with your thoughts on Stephen Colbert’s recent performance; it’s my amazement at how off the mark you are that is impelling me to help you out in a time of obvious need.
First, to get right to the point: you have not been this wrong since you—along with the vast majority of the so-called liberal media—allowed yourself to be hustled by the hysterical and intelligence-insulting claims of the administration in late 2002 and early 2003. Suffice it to say, pointing out the supine performance of your colleagues at, to name the two most disappointing examples, The Washington Post and The New York Times during the lead up to, and aftermath of, the Iraq imbroglio is rather like shooting fish in a barrel—or harpooning whales in a bathtub for that matter. And yet, it warrants mention when people who should know better not only get it so wrong, but are yet to realize, or concede, that the primary reason they got it wrong is their unwillingness to bite the hand that pets them (or the tail that wags them).
And perhaps that is the point: as others have repeatedly observed, nothing causes the political paparazzi more chagrin (including the unconscionable and repeated malfeasance and incompetence of our current administration) than the spectacle of anyone—particularly a comedian with chops slightly more cynical than, say, Jay Leno—having the audacity to point out their myopia, if not complicity in the current crises. Therefore you—and evidenced by the deafening silence and white ink this week, many of your compatriots—doth protest a tad too much. Colbert wasn’t funny? Well, let’s just say that humor, and scathingly on-target scorn, is in the eye of the beholder. I think we’ll let the looks on certain faces and the tone of certain columns (including the conspicuous absence of many commentators who just couldn’t be bothered to comment) speak loud and proud on this one. Colbert hit his mark. Early, often, and indelibly.
But to linger on why you obviously wouldn’t like being reminded how easily you were manipulated into carrying those buckets of dirty water for the chicken hawks (that you did not see through the Colin Powell charade for what it was while it was going down obviously still makes you bristle with embarrassment, as it should) is to avoid the larger issue. Your column, against all probability, suggests that you still don’t get it, and continue to let careful spin and artifice influence your better judgment.
For instance, you inexplicably call Colbert a bully for the ostensible impunity with which he lambasted Bush, to his face. This begs the immediate question: doesn’t it take a little more courage, not to mention perspicacity, to say in person, as a comedian, the very things well-paid writers like you were not able, or willing, to say in the safety of Op-Ed pages for the past several years? More to the point, how often has this president put himself in the position to be ridiculed, much less forced to answer simple questions from reporters? Not only is it abundantly documented how obsessively Bush avoids unpleasant or uncomfortable intrusions upon his eggshell sensibilities, but one of the primary (and painfully apparent) goals of his protectors and paid apologists has been to shield him from being accountable, or even (seemingly) aware of any facts that run counter to the fantasies he and his cronies have conjured up in the safety of their well-fortified situation rooms. This is a man seemingly allergic to introspection, comforted by cliché and available for fabricated words of encouragement after the dust and danger have cleared. Indeed, the only people being bullied are the citizens (be they reporters or democrats or non-Kool-Aid drinking members of the GOP) who dare to question or critique the president or his policies. Maybe you’ve forgotten about the carefully screened audiences Bush spoke to and took the occasional, scripted questions from on the campaign trail (and his entire tenure has, under the shameless machinations of Karl Rove, been one ceaseless campaign), or the folks who were tossed out of these same spectacles for having anti-Bush stickers on their cars.
This, in sum, is not exactly a president who has been obliged to suffer the indignities of being held accountable or asked, publicly, to answer a tough question. Of course, it’s easier—and safer—to (rightly) poke fun at the infuriating, yet hapless Scott McClellan for his craven stonewalling. And although no one will miss him, he was, at worst, a minion doing what he was told. Why, just to take one obvious example, isn’t the press (why aren’t you) asking every day what the president has to say about his earlier promise that anyone involved in the Plame leak would no longer be in his administration? One wishes the press found this slightly troublesome contradiction half as interesting, half as sexy, as they found the Monica Lewinsky circus, a topic about which they had the courage to keep Americans quite sufficiently informed.
Listen: you need to understand something. What Colbert is doing, and what he achieved in that incendiary performance, is beyond satire or even the current flavor of our times, detached cynicism. He is inverting the strategy Bush and Co. utilize (and which Fox News has long made its S.O.P.), to lamentably successful effect, nowhere more egregiously than in the 2004 election: create an environment where careful debate or compromise is a sign of weakness, the willingness (or ability) to concede error or allow any manner of criticism is unseemly, unmanly. This, after all, is a president who “doesn’t do nuance.”
Colbert was not merely making fun of Bush’s propensity to bumble except in the most carefully orchestrated events, or his obliteration of the English language—we can let him misspeak for himself and let the videotapes cry themselves to sleep. Colbert’s unique—and thus far unparalleled genius—is in illustrating how this cocksure inarticulacy can be played off as straight talk from a regular guy, an honest cowboy who can’t be bothered to look up facts or trust books or listen to advice from experts because he goes by his gut, and he listens to a Higher Father. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how this strategy (to Rove’s credit this debility, which would have annihilated an aspiring candidate’s chances before Reagan, and the real Republican revolution that arose from the revelation that, finally, image and facile amiability trump intelligence and acumen in the new and improved America) was deployed against Kerry, and especially Gore: Are these pretty boys with their faces buried in books really the people you want leading the country?
Colbert lampoons the charade of patriotic and/or faith-driven certainty that is designed to avoid and discourage discussion or debate. Take a moment and consider how this rather simple scheme precedes virtually every catastrophe this administration has caused or conflated:Iraq, tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%, warrantless wiretapping, et cetera.
“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 toAmerica; she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
That’s funny. It also happens to be perhaps the most succinct and devastating indictment (less than four lines!) of the incompetence, phoniness, cowardice and opportunistic impotence yet leveled against this administration.
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. Just put ‘em 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 intrepidWashington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
That’s funny too.
You know what isn’t funny? The same scribes that this administration scoffs at (that’s you Cohen), proving that, when push comes to shove, they’d rather defend the man who conned them by attacking the man who had the temerity to remind them how easily they were hoodwinked. That isn’t funny. It’s sad.
By Richard CohenThursday, May 4, 2006; A25
First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to “say something funny” — as if the deed could be done on demand. This, anyway, is my standing for stating that Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. All the rest is commentary.
The commentary, though, is also what I do, and it will make the point that Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. Rude is not the same as brash. It is not the same as brassy. It is not the same as gutsy or thinking outside the box. Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person’s sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.
Colbert made jokes about Bush’s approval rating, which hovers in the middle 30s. He made jokes about Bush’s intelligence, mockingly comparing it to his own. “We’re not some brainiacs on nerd patrol,” he said. Boy, that’s funny.
Colbert took a swipe at Bush’sIraq policy, at domestic eavesdropping, and he took a shot at the news corps for purportedly being nothing more than stenographers recording what the Bush White House said. He referred to the recent staff changes at the White House, chiding the media for supposedly repeating the cliché “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when he would have put it differently: “This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.” A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.
Why are you wasting my time with Colbert, I hear you ask. Because he is representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country. His defenders — and they are all over the blogosphere — will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know, but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions, consequences — maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or — if you’re at work — take away your office.
But in this country, anyone can insult the president of theUnited States. Colbert just did it, and he will not suffer any consequence at all. He knew that going in. He also knew that Bush would have to sit there and pretend to laugh at Colbert’s lame and insulting jokes. Bush himself plays off his reputation as a dunce and his penchant for mangling English. Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting is not. The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity. This is why Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.
I am not a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and I have not attended its dinner in years (I watched this year’s on C-SPAN). The gala is an essentially harmless event that requires the presence of one man, the president. If presidents started not to show up, the organization would have to transform itself into a burial association. But presidents come and suffer through a ritual that most of them find mildly painful, not to mention boring. Whatever the case, they are guests. They don’t have to be there — and if I were Bush, next year I would not. Spring is a marvelous time to be atCamp David.
On television, Colbert is often funny. But on his own show he appeals to a self-selected audience that reminds him often of his greatness. InWashington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person’s most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate — to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important)Washington things it would have been good for them to hear. But he was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others. In this sense, he was a man for our times.
He also wasn’t funny.