October 11, 2006

Truthiness Marches On

Another MUST READ at New York Magazine: Stephen Colbert Has America by the Ballots.
“Language has always been important in politics, but language is incredibly important to the present political struggle,” Colbert says. “Because if you can establish an atmosphere in which information doesn’t mean anything, then there is no objective reality. The first show we did, a year ago, was our thesis statement: What you wish to be true is all that matters, regardless of the facts. Of course, at the time, we thought we were being farcical.”
The seven-page article includes some background on his Washingto Press Corps dinner address:
This year, Mark Smith, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, invited Colbert to give the main toast. Smith later told the Times he hadn’t seen much of Colbert’s work. Colbert accepted the invitation, grabbed his tux, and shuttled down to D.C., prepared to deliver twenty minutes’ worth of vintage Colbert jokes, some new and some drawn from the show. The night kicked off with opening remarks, then an act in which President Bush appeared alongside a President Bush impersonator, which went over very well.

Then Colbert stepped to the podium.

He opened with an obligatory Cheney’s-going-to-shoot-me-in-the-face joke, then said, “Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert, and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate the president … 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 powerful message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world … He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will … ” Then, addressing the press, Colbert said, “Over the last five years, you people were so good. Over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming: We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try and find out.” And so on.

In the audience, Colbert’s co-head writers, Allison Silverman and Rich Dahm, sat at a table with Colbert’s agent and his wife. Henry Kissinger was nearby, as was Karl Rove, as were Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame. Silverman remembers thinking, Oh, my God, he’s really going for it. When I asked her later about that night, she laughed and said, “I was afraid for my life.”

After the speech, Colbert was introduced to the First Couple. “The president was very nice,” he recalls. “The First Lady said, ‘Well done.’ ” But later, at a party, somebody came up to him and asked, “So, what would you take back if you could?”

To which Colbert replied, “Nothing. I had a really good time.” Then he asked, “Is there something I should know?”

The speech, which was broadcast on C-span, was all over YouTube within an hour, and the clips were viewed 2.7 million times over the next two days. Peter Daou on Salon called it “a biting rebuke of George W. Bush and the lily-livered press corps.” Richard Cohen, in the Washington Post, called Colbert “not just a failure as a comedian but rude.” Chris Lehmann in the Observer wrote, “[T]he act was the opposite of ballsy confrontation … the material came off as shrill and airless.” A commenter on the blog Daily Kos wrote, “He was stunning and they were stunned.”

The strangest responses, though, were the ones that defended Colbert by claiming he wasn’t trying to be funny—that his real goal, having infiltrated the inner sanctum of Washington under cover of tuxedo, was to enact some kind of kamikaze Soy Bomb attack on President Bush. A commenter on the New Republic’s Website wrote, “Given an opportunity to inflict personal, withering criticism on perhaps the most insulated President in the history of our nation, what would you rather be: scathing or funny?” Another suggested to the Times’ ?“Letters” page, “Although I am a fan of Mr. Colbert, I rarely laughed. If his performance wasn’t funny, perhaps it’s because he wasn’t joking.”

Colbert has become something very close to what he’s parodying, a kind of Bill O’Reilly for the angry left.

In the immediate aftermath of the press-corps appearance, Colbert seemed genuinely unsettled by all the attention, refusing to speak on it publicly. At the taping I attended with the crazy-enthusiastic girl who asked about giving the president the finger, he demurred uncomfortably, saying, “For the record, I was there to do jokes.” He then said of the president, “He’s a charming fellow … ” before trailing off and taking the next question. Later, to me, he repeats what’s now become his standard line: “I was there to do some jokes. I was there to do what I do. I expected maybe a whiff of brimstone. A soupçon of scandal. Did I expect this to be a line in the sand for people? No, absolutely not.” As for the Internet-fueled hysteria, he claims not to know much about it. “I’ve kept myself willfully ignorant of people’s reactions. I did not read the blogs. People would send me links, and I’d say, ‘Please don’t send me links.’ I asked my wife just to collect everything, put it in a book, and tell me about it later.”

He has yet to open that scrapbook, though he adds later about the furor, “It depresses me that there isn’t a politician who can address that frustration that was clearly evident in the reaction to what I did. Where’s the politician who can take advantage of that anger and that passion?” When I point out his current folk-hero status and suggest that, you know, maybe he’s that guy, he deflects the question. “I’m Paul Bunyan, is that what you’re saying? We should open a gift shop and museum here.”


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