By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
May 2, 2006
It’s been a long time since political satire meant something.
Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Al Gore, Steve Forbes, Monica Lewinsky, George Bush and George W. Bush have all been on Saturday Night Live in the past 10 years. Now-requisite appearances with Jay Leno and David Letterman are no different from sit-downs with Oprah. Even The Daily Show compromises its brilliance every time Jon Stewart backs down while interviewing a high-profile political guest.
Thankfully, someone forgot to give the memo to Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s performance at the White House correspondents dinner Saturday was everything satire should be: brave, shocking, and true. For the first time, I could imagine what it was like to see Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford skewered on SNL in its early days.
Bush has protected himself from face-to-face criticism by avoiding news conferences, screening audience members at campaign events, and relying on the White House press corps’ acquiescence to the briefing room game.
Colbert made Bush pay for this. Standing two seats away, Colbert showed him exactly the amount of respect a president who hides from the American people deserves.
He cut through the pleasantries with a dig at Dick Cheney’s hunting mishap: “To sit here at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush. To be this close to the man. I feel like I’m dreaming. Somebody pinch me. You know what, I’m a pretty sound sleeper; that may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face.” He mocked the Bush administration’s casual disregard for science and fact: “I’ve never been a fan of books. I don’t trust them. They’re all fact, no heart. They’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true or what did or didn’t happen. … I’m with the president. Let history decide what did or did not happen.”
And he neatly put the president and the press in their places for taking already image-driven politics to a new level: “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 to America she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
Few people in the audience laughed at that one. After all, they’re the ones who perpetuate the charade that those photo ops are news. They’re the ones who chuckled at Bush’s routine with an impersonator mocking his malapropisms, just as they laughed at his video making light of the WMD fiasco at a press dinner in 2004. Speaking truth to power? Not so much.
What’s different about Colbert’s roast and similar jokes on The Daily Show is that he was saying all this to the president’s face. Show some respect? Not so much.
It wasn’t just the jokes, but his direct I’m-not-scared-of-you tone. Turning to Bush, he said, “We go straight from the gut. Right sir? That’s where the truth lies.” Last year’s Comedy Central roast of Pamela Anderson wasn’t this harsh; everyone at least made nice with Pam after humiliating her. Colbert didn’t even give Bush that courtesy.
As well he shouldn’t. If there was a time for polite satire, it’s long gone. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait six more years for another moment like this.