Stephen Colbert, after winning a Peabody in 2012. / Photo courtesy of the Peabody Awards.
Chris Lehmann,  December 19, 2014

The Smarmies of the Night (Revisited)

Stephen Colbert, after winning a Peabody in 2012. / Photo courtesy of the Peabody Awards.
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The Colbert Report, a nine-year running gag in which the former Daily Show correspondent portrayed a louder, meaner, more megalomaniacal Bill O’Reilly, ended last night in a rush of celebrity self-congratulation. The stentorian maximum leader of the Colbert Nation flailed around his studio set to deliver a series of perfunctory bits intended to send up his fake pundit vanity. He mugged before his adoring studio audience and barked out faux-Fox News catch phrases; in one extended skit, he pretended to vanquish the Grim Reaper with his trusty handgun and ascend to apotheosis, like a latter-day Vishnu in a power suit. (Immortality “feels pretty good,” he then announced; “I can see why God went that way.”) In another interminable segment, a frightful, expanding chorus of erstwhile colleagues and guest pundits—from Jon Stewart to Ken Burns, from Andrew Sullivan to Arianna Huffington, from Henry Kissinger to Samantha Power—kept streaming onto the studio floor to sing chorus after chorus of “We’ll Meet Again,” a Tinpan alley chestnut once put to better satirical use over the mushroom-cloud footage at the end of Dr. Strangelove (a movie villain whose over-the-top grotesqueries were, if anything, surpassed in real life by the genially crooning war criminal Kissinger). The commercials featured Colbert pitching product from the California Pistachio Growers Association.

Yes, the satirist once hailed as our most fearless prophet of entertainment as social-revolution-by-other-means was now shilling salty nutmeats en route to his tour of celebrity-enabling duty behind David Letterman’s abandoned Late Show desk.

All in all, what better time to revisit a dispatch that, for several years, made me one of the most reviled writers on the Netroots left—a minority report on the satirical value of Colbert’s now-legendary performance on the dais of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. (The New York Observer, which had the misfortune of publishing my dispatch over a torrent of lefty Net righteousness, appears to have disabled the link for it, but The Baffler’s masochistic web team has rescued it from the Wayback Machine.)

Much has changed, superficially, in our national entertainment state since that grim year, but you can rest assured that Stephen Colbert will mug onward, in his most challenging role yet: a flat, predictable act, pantomiming an edgy persona in a near-complete broadcast vacuum.

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The Smarmies of the Night
 
Washington, a Town Without Wit or Pity, Finds Persona of Daily Show Guy a Political Hairball—Right Retches, as Lefties Hug Poor Bastard
 
[Originally published in the New York Observer on May 8, 2006]
 

Stephen Colbert was asked, just after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 29, how the President and First Lady received his evening’s routine. He launched into an account of the pre-party they hosted before the dinner, the highlight of which was his opportunity to introduce one of his right-wing brothers to the President. The brother then turned to the Comedy Central star and said, “You’re the family martyr.”

Right, but how did Mr. Bush react, you know, after the performance? “Oh, he was very gracious,” Mr. Colbert said. He clasped a stranger’s elbow in a Bush impersonation and said, in a C.E.O.-style drawl, “Nice job.”

Does he think it difficult to offend a Washington crowd? “You know, I can’t gauge when people are offended and when they’re not getting the joke.” Then would it not help, he was asked, to break character just a bit?

“Never,” he said. Mr. Colbert laughed. “My character loves the President.”

In the swooping hangar-like ballroom of Connecticut Avenue’s Hinckley Hilton, George W. Bush and professional Bush impersonator Steve Bridges had traded harmless jibes at the President’s genial-dope image. They had gone heavy on Dick Cheney mishap jokes and mispronunciations of “nuclear.” Tired gags are the last refuge of the unpopular.

Mr. Colbert, after them, had gone through a litany of his own branded, harsher barbs, courtesy of the persona—and in some instances, the scripts—adopted on his cable comedy show, The Colbert Report.

Mr. Colbert also ended his act with a well-worn shtick—a much-too-long video playing up A.P. White House correspondent Helen Thomas’ mystical (and mythical) ability to rattle the administration. (They do not, unfortunately, find her a threat.) This was a comic theme whose sell-by date passed sometime in 2004.

The President’s turn at Rotarian-style “look-at-silly-me” spoofery was comforting to most of the grandees on hand, to be sure. But that didn’t mean they took mortal offense at Mr. Colbert, as has been widely alleged by the flying wedge of blog-style commentators on the left.

One D.C. bureau chief for a major paper was indeed chortling gleefully at nearly every breath Mr. Colbert drew on the dais; others were more restrained, most likely because the act was the opposite of ballsy confrontation. Safely delivered all in the stentorian, arrogant voice of Mr. Colbert’s late-night Bill O’Reilly knockoff persona, the material came off as shrill and airless, with little time or space left for jokes to sink in and seduce the listener before the next round of hectoring began.

And really: How edgy is claiming that the case for the Iraq war was shaky when former CENTCOM commander Anthony C. Zinni and Colin Powell were already doing the same?

High-toned D.C. gatherings such as this one are unfailingly unctuous, one of the many coyly winking moments in political life when every partisan, satrap and commentator on hand is asked to lighten up and affirm the ultimate shared agenda, of merely gaming the system to one’s own best short-term advantage. Fortuna’s wheel may lurch this way and that, but the correspondents’ dinner is chiefly the entertainment of D.C.’s lifers, much like the banquets thrown by the French colonial attaché in the restored version of Apocalypse Now.

In the mini-furor that’s followed on the heels of his night of shtick, Mr. Colbert’s choice to not drop the character has been proven a bad one. The overwhelming evidence suggests that the humorless bloggers, columnists and activists who’ve lined up on the question of Mr. Colbert’s reception get neither the joke nor the character. They can be offended, though, in every which way.

Salon’s Michael Scherer likened the act to the “détournements” of the Situationists, who theorized the Parisian New Left revolt of 1968. A poster on Daily Kos fondly imagined that this was a “Harry Taylor moment”—Mr. Taylor being the North Carolina realtor who stunned the President at a recent “town hall meeting” by asking him why he wasn’t ashamed of his record.

The Kos commentator ended up with a rallying cry: “Stephen Colbert speaks for me.”

The right, for the first time in who knows how long, is easily winning a pseudo-debate on points just by sticking to the facts and insisting that the material wasn’t all that original; that Mr. Colbert’s persona gets wearingly one-note-ish in person; and that his timing was dreadfully off. (The transcript is certainly much funnier than the performance that took place in that room.)

In truth, nothing in Mr. Colbert’s routine was remotely as hilarious as the “I am Spartacus” echo of earnest lefty pronouncements such as “Stephen Colbert speaks for me.”

The left’s prim dissection of the media’s scurrilous failure to laugh and applaud wildly misses the essential point: that such behavior is usually reserved for material that comes off as funny.

(I, for one, found neither act of the evening uproarious: Who, I must plaintively ask in the high ardor of pop-cult disenfranchisement, speaks for me?)

In a 60 Minutes profile that aired Sunday night, Mr. Colbert explained to Morley Safer that he doesn’t allow his kids to see his eponymous Comedy Central show. “Kids can’t understand irony or sarcasm, and I don’t want them to perceive me as insincere. Because one night I’ll be putting them to bed and I’ll say, ‘I love you, honey.’ And they’ll say, ‘I get it. Very dry, Dad. That’s good stuff.’”

And that may have been Mr. Colbert’s biggest problem. The media kids he was babysitting that night were not even remotely equipped to calibrate irony, intentional or otherwise.

There was an even larger point gone missing in all the furor. As Steve Scully, the incoming White House Correspondents’ Association president, told Editor & Publisher on May 2, the evening’s events have but one purpose: “thanking the White House staff”—on behalf of the press that covers that staff—“and cultivating source relationships.”

A VERY, VERY DRUNK G.O.P. CONSULTANT—swaying as he stood, his bowtie unclasped and draped around his neck and his vest askew, pointed toward some spot overhead with a bottle of Amstel Light. “It’s all in that Thomas Pynchon novel,” he said.

Which Thomas Pynchon novel? The Crying of Lot 49? V?

“No, no,” he said. “That other one.”

Ah. Gravity’s Rainbow.

“Yes! That’s the one 500,000-page novel I read—and Thomas Pynchon is the best living American writer!”

The consultant, now well afield from his original point, then whipped out a jewelry box that contained a set of cufflinks from some long-ago Senate campaign—for a guy named Rawlings, near as could be made out in the dim light of the tent abutting the Macedonian Embassy.

Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman happened along then. The swaying consultant thrust the cufflinks at him. Mr. Mehlman volunteered a story about President Bush, who honored some work Mr. Mehlman had done on the President’s re-election campaign with a gift of cufflinks.

“And I told him, ‘I paid for those cufflinks seven times,’” Mr. Mehlman said, in a tone just shy of belligerent. “And he looked at me and said, ‘That’s good.’”

This was the shank end of a long day’s drinking—about 2:30 a.m.—and making sense was not at a premium. It was striking, though, that even the chair of the national Republican party seemed so uneasy about what the President might mean in even the most offhand forms of approval, and about how it might be intended to enhance his loyalty.

Saturday night’s parties made for the first convocation of the press and the powerful since the Bush White House has entered its late-baroque stage. Now that dedicated apparatchiks like Scott McClellan and Andy Card have been kicked to the curb, the corridors of D.C. power are hectic with speculation over just who—apart from permanent made guy Donald Rumsfeld—might be next over the wall.

Design-wise, the Bloomberg after-party was a riot of high Eurotrash: Mist-spraying fountains formed narrow walls of water in front of the bar and the bathrooms. Over the bar was an enormous horizontal diorama of video images depicting nature in exotic locales through the seasons, punctuated with an occasional fugitive glimpse of a tiger—a seemingly deliberate, half-taunting allusion to the peace and majesty of a world without humans. Mr. Pynchon, could he be coaxed out of his solitary exile, would most certainly approve.

Purists among the Bloomberg party faithful affected mild effrontery at the gaucheness of this year’s bash. They traded tales of past campaigns. Remember the time when the Congressman was making out with a young intern as his press spokesman stood soddenly by, doing nothing? Remember—back when the party was at the Soviet Embassy—you could open a random door downstairs and stumble on a thick-necked crew of Russian aides playing cards and downing vodka from mason jars?

The past possesses this strong anecdotal undertow for a simple reason: The immediate prospect is so entirely cheerless.

Even the approach of more possible Plame indictments, election season and, far down the road, Congressional hearings into the executive excesses of the Bush era hold no particular joy, even for journalists: Their own lapses are so tightly wound around the administration’s chin-jutting adventurism and heady power grabs.

The day’s festivities stretched all the way back to noon, with the kickoff brunch hosted by MSNBC producer Tammy Haddad. The defining moment of that event was the arrival of former Niger Ambassador Joe Wilson, husband of C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame. He walked up Ms. Haddad’s slate sidewalk in D.C.’s swank Palisades neighborhood; he sported a Palm Beach–style untucked Hawaiian shirt and brandished a cigar. He approached the tent where D.C.’s various media personages, pols and celebrity-esque hangers-on congregated.

Mr. Wilson took a quick, disenchanted look at his lit stogie and tossed it into Ms. Haddad’s flowerbed.

It wasn’t a gesture of confrontation so much as simple ambient sourness. But it served as another signature moment, six years into a flailing Bush Presidency, where the Washington zeitgeist might best be summed up in two words: “Fuck it.”

Indeed, what’s striking about the whole day’s spectacle was its pure worshipful guilelessness before the culture of celebrity. One booker explained that the main reason so many midlisters—say, Ron Silver, who turns up every year like a bad penny—had gravitated to the dinner is that they needn’t compete for press coverage as fiercely as they would in real celebrity capitals like L.A. or New York. For all its self-advertised toughness, the D.C. press corps quivers and shakes with the near-tearful gratitude of a Beatlemaniac the instant it encounters an American Idol also-ran, or a champion poker player.

And, in the case of George Clooney, it goes positively weak in the netherparts. Mr. Clooney, who had come to town to advocate for sanctions against Sudan to stem the genocide in Darfur, triggered a series of swoons worthy of a revival meeting.

(All the crazed idolatry of Mr. Clooney prompted an inspired prank: Some mischievous D.C. message-crafters circulated a breathless e-mail about an apocryphal after-party that Mr. Clooney was said to be attending. The joke within the joke was that the bar named in the e-mail, Blue Gin, no longer even operates under that name. So blinded was our national press corps by the reflected luster of Mr. Clooney’s glamour that it never occurred to them to make a call or check the facts.)

(Then again, perhaps the buzz over the Blue Gin confab was yet another sign of D.C. desperation, particularly in light of the real after-parties on offer. Bloomberg’s rival news service, Reuters, hosted a large and deafening disco-themed gathering on K Street. Jason Binn’s heiresses-of-the-damned publication, Capitol File, marshaled the sort of high-octane autocrats suited to its Georgetown locale, Ann Coulter and Antonin Scalia chief among them.)

Mr. Clooney had held court in the Washington PostNewsweek pre-party. In his glow, one erstwhile media cynic claimed, “I felt my ovaries throb.” So plentiful were his admirers, brandishing digital cameras and pens for autographs, that most correspondents completely overlooked the more newsworthy guest—and, professionally speaking, the most schmooze-worthy one: newly named White House press secretary Tony Snow stood just a dozen feet away.

Mr. Snow came, no doubt, in hopes of advertising the mood of press perestroika that his hire—that of a press employee, even if from the White House–osculating Fox News Network—was meant to symbolize. He was swapping stories with David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for The Nation.

Mr. Snow volunteered that Mr. Corn was the first to send him a congratulatory e-mail upon news of his hire. If the White House is returning e-mails from The Nation ahead of everyone else, then the tone is indeed being changed, it was suggested.

Or not. Mr. Corn said that Mr. Snow never actually wrote him back.

Fight all you want about which celebrity figure pisses off the President more. That’s just how Tony Snow likes it.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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