Put a fork in the Celebrity pundits...They're done
Posted on Wednesday, May 10, 2006
In my experience, there’s no bigger bunch of crybabies in American public life than the fops and courtiers of our Washington press corps. If Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner did nothing else, it surely proved that. Two years ago, the same crowd guffawed at a White House video depicting that playful scamp, George W. Bush, searching the Oval Office for Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were offended to hear Colbert, doing his dead-on impersonation of an adoring FOX News pundit, telling Bush, “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” Faking phony sincerity is hard. Yet Colbert remained in character throughout. “I stand for this man,” he declared, 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 to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photoops in the world.”
By and large, the Beltway celebrities were not amused. The classical term, pardon my French, is lese majeste: the crime of insulting the king. Most empathized with the president, poor baby, sitting with a forced grin while being lampooned to his face.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen grumped that “Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.”
After first ignoring the performance many news accounts praised the president’s mildly amusing routine with a Bush impersonator without mentioning it—pundits complained that Colbert wasn’t funny. Partly that’s because his secondary target was the media swells themselves. After praising FOX News for giving “both sides of every story: the president’s side, and the vice president’s side,” he complained about the press’ recent interest in stories like National Security Agency wiretaps and secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
“Let’s review the rules,” Colbert said. “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 intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”
Too bitter? It’s a matter of taste. Instead of trying to amuse his live audience, Colbert used them as a collective straight man. A TV performer, he pitched his act to the C-SPAN cameras. (Google has bought the rights. You can watch on your computer and decide. )
Satire comes in many forms. I doubt that Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” evoked belly laughs among Ireland’s 18th century English occupiers when it recommended remedying poverty by roasting peasants’ infants like suckling pigs.
George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” had few fans in the Politburo when it mocked communism’s pretense of universal brotherhood: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Written in 1943, Orwell’s fable wasn’t published until August 1945, when World War II ended, making Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill no longer allies.
This president loves dishing it out. The Associated Press reporter who introduced Colbert told an anecdote about Bush teasing him at a press conference for having “a face for radio.” Ha, ha, ha. Good one, Mr. President. He is awfully homely. Colbert’s performance, however, made it clear that Bush doesn’t enjoy taking it.
Well, tough. Millions of Americans haven’t enjoyed being subjected to Bush’s swaggeringly contemptuous disregard for the truth. Nor, to come to the point, the posturing of media enablers like Cohen, a liberal columnist who wrote in 2000 that the nation was “in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will make things better and not worse.... That man is George W. Bush.”
The larger point is that Beltway courtiers like Cohen, Time’s Joe Klein and others currently succumbing to the vapors over critical e-mails from fans thrilled by Colbert’s gutsy performance are on their way out. The brief reign of the celebrity pundit began with cable TV and appears to be ending with the Internet. Washington socialites are quickly being replaced in public esteem by politically oriented bloggers like Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, the inimitable Digby, Glenn Greenwald, Billmon, Atrios and many others. As Greg Sargent recently pointed out in The American Prospect, “Readers are choosing between the words on a screen offered by Klein and other commentators and the words on a screen offered by bloggers on the basis of one thing alone: The quality of the work.” Sure, there’s a danger of groupthink. That’s true of all mass media. But there’s also a fierce independence and an intellectual honesty among the best online commentators that are making Washington courtiers awfully nervous.
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
Lily Tomlin said it best. "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up."