An old friend of mine with a penchant for Marxist jargoneering takes every opportunity to remind anyone who will listen that, ‘the American ruling class is the dumbest class ever to rule.’ After speaking in front of the most representative audience of the American ruling class that he’ll ever land –the White House Press Correspondence Dinner –Stephen Colbert proved it. Colbert impaled them and they were dumb enough to claim, as Noam Scheiber of the New Republic did "that he just wasn’t very entertaining." Of course, comments like this just vindicate Colbert. Josh Orton of huffingtonpost.com was one of the few in attendance who shared Colbert’s contempt for the evening’s collection of Generals, judges, politicians and the press that parrot them. "The real reason for this circle-jerk," Orton wrote was, "affirmation of continued reporting mediocrity."
We’ve all day-dreamed similar scenarios: "What if I had 20 uninterrupted minutes to say whatever I wanted to the mainstream media, George W. Bush, Supreme Court Justice Scalia, and a handful of the US Military’s ranking generals?" Now we can be certain we’ll never get the chance; Colbert zinged them all so perfectly that John Stewart has a better chance of landing Wolf Blitzer’s job than any of us has of getting invited to such a gala ever again.
Colbert is the host of the enormously popular satirical Daily Show spin-off, "The Colbert Report." His detailed study of the talking head circuit is apparent immediately: He submits Bill O’Reilly as his closest influence, and has even made O’Reilly’s habit of cutting guests’ mics a part of his own repertoire. They stand together in the war to defend America against the "secular, liberal media elite."
Unlike John Stewart, who would be far too polite in front of this crowd, Colbert’s character doesn’t know how to hold back. In countless blogs and columns Colbert’s performance is being compared to Stewart’s now-famous appearance on Crossfire during which he called Tucker Carlson "a dick," compared mainstream political debates to professional wrestling and managed to get the show pulled from CNN’s programming. But Colbert’s mockery went one step further: his satire showed each one of them –from the scrappiest press correspondent to the president himself –what they look like to the rest of us. That’s why they weren’t laughing at his jokes.
Displaying his credentials to fill Scott McLellan’s old job as White House Press Secretary, Colbert –referring to the press –told Bush, "I have nothing but contempt for these people." He could have said the same thing out of character.
"Over the last five years you people [in the press] 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 to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew."
Rumor has it that John Stewart is popular among right-wingers. I don’t know why they like him, but I can believe it. I can’t accept however that any significant numbers of Bush-supporters have even the slightest tolerance for Stephen Colbert; he hides his disdain for Bush-supporters about as well as his disdain for the man himself.
"Pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means its 2/3 empty. There’s still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn’t drink it. The last third is usually backwash."
After comparing Bush’s legacy to Rocky Balboa’s ("The heartwarming story of a man who was repeatedly punched in the face") Colbert rebutted the pundits who charge that the administration’s recent personnel changes are tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic:
"That is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!"
And just in case you were afraid that Colbert might share some of John Stewart’s political naïveté, John McCain finally heard what Jeffrey St. Clair has been dying to tell him
"John McCain is here … what a maverick! Somebody find out what fork he used on his salad, because I guarantee you it wasn’t a salad fork. This guy could have used a spoon! There’s no predicting him. By the way, Senator McCain, it’s so wonderful to see you coming back into the Republican fold. I have a summerhouse in South Carolina; look me up when you go to speak at Bob Jones University."
Generals were told, "If you’re strong enough to go on one of those pundit shows, you can stand on a bank of computers and order men into battle." Justice Scalia was flipped off, "just talking some Sicilian with my paisan." And he took the opportunity to welcome New Orleans’ Mayor Nagin to Washington DC, "the chocolate city with a marshmallow center. And a graham cracker crust of corruption. It’s a Mallomar."
Watching Colbert, I thought about how H L Mencken must have felt at the Scopes Monkey Trial where he narrowly escaped a mob-lynching at the hands of those fundamentalists he ridiculed so scathingly. Mencken, who posted Scopes’ bail and shaped the legal strategy in his living room, acknowledged that their defeat to whom he called "evangelist mountebanks" was "a tragedy in a way but I might add it was not a tragedy to me I enjoyed it tremendously." Colbert knows better than anybody the tragedy he satirizes so eerily well. But because he enjoys it so tremendously, he helps us find some joy in it, too.
On his own program, Colbert often plays to his audience –as if they’re Bush supporters –saying "you people get it," knowing that they actually do get it; the satire, that is. At the press dinner, Colbert knew that he didn’t have his usual audience; and that crowd just doesn’t get it.