I'll be your mirror
Much of the press and the entirety of the right wing didn't see the humor in Stephen Colbert's "blistering comedy tribute" to President Bush at the White House Correspondents dinner on Saturday. In their report on the event, the New York Times didn't even mention his keynote perfomance in their coverage of the event. Down the memory hole, literally.
Editor & Publisher, which has had some of the very best coverage of the event from the beginning, has a good run down on the significance of the failure to react:
Certainly, deciding what's funny is subjective, sometimes a matter of taste (or tastelessness), but increasingly, also, partisan. We bring our politics to everything nowadays, although some may be more open to good satire than others, even when someone on "your side" is hit.As to the real significance of the event itself, Billmon had the best take, at least to begin with:
Still, with the knocks on Colbert increasing, I have to ask: Where was the outrage when President Bush made fun of not finding those pesky WMDs at a very similar media dinner--in the same ballroom--two years ago? It represents a shameful episode for the American media, and presidency, yet is rarely mentioned today.
It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.
President Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It shows they are good sports, which many people (including the president) often doubt. It's all in good fun, except when it's in bad fun, such as on that night in March 2004.
That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
According to the transcript this was greeted with "laughter and applause" from the audience.
A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: "Nope, no weapons over there" (met with more "laughter and applause"), and then "Maybe under here?" (just "laughter" this time). Still searching, he settled for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.
There is no record of whether Dana Milbank attended that dinner, but his paper the following day seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey's report, carried on the front page of the Style section (under the headline, "George Bush, Entertainer in Chief"), led with Donald Trump's appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush's "recurring joke" of searching for the WMDs.
The Associated Press review was equally jovial: "President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media." In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president's slide show. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.
The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president's gag, David Corn of The Nation, said he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, had said at a similar dinner: "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."
The backlash only appeared a day or two later, and not, by and large, emerging from the media, but from Democrats and some Iraq veterans. Then it was mainly forgotten. I never understood why Sen. John Kerry did not air a tape of the episode every day during his hapless final drive for the White House.
In any case, another 1900 Americans have died in Iraq since Bush's ha-ha home video. As it happens, the Downing Street memo, and a similar British document that surfaced recently, suggested that Bush doubted WMDs existed and "fixed" the intelligence to take the nation to war. What a riot.
At that same Downing Street memo forum at the Capitol last year that Milbank mocked, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, after cataloguing the bogus Bush case for WMDs and the Iraqi threat, looked out at the cameras and notepads, mentioned the March 24, 2004 dinner, and acted out the president looking under papers and table for those missing WMDs. "And the media was all yucking it up ... hahaha, McGovern said. "You all laughed with him, folks." Then he mentioned soldiers who had died "after that big joke."
Dana Milbank, who seems to like a good laugh, did not mention this in his hit piece the following day.
Colbert's routine was designed to draw blood -- as good political satire should. It seemed obvious, at least to me, that he didn't just despise his audience, he hated it. While that hardly merits comment here in Left Blogostan, White House elites clearly aren't used to having such contempt thrown in their faces at one of their most cherished self-congratulatory events. So it's no surprise the scribes have tried hard to expunge it from the semi-official record -- as Peter Daou notes over at the Huffington Post.Salon has more:
Colbert used satire the way it's used in more openly authoritarian societies: as a political weapon, a device for raising issues that can't be addressed directly. He dragged out all the unmentionables -- the Iraq lies, the secret prisons, the illegal spying, the neutered stupidity of the lapdog press -- and made it pretty clear that he wasn't really laughing at them, much less with them. It may have been comedy, but it also sounded like a bill of indictment, and everybody understood the charges...
Colbert's real sin wasn't lese majesty, it was inserting a brief moment of honesty into an event based upon a lie -- one considered socially necessary by the political powers that be, but still, a lie.Like its upscale sibling, the annual Gridiron Club dinner, the White House Correspondents dinner is a ritual designed, at least implicitly, to showcase the underlying unity of our Beltway elites. It's supposed to demonstrate that no matter how ferocious their battles may appear on the surface, political opponents can still gather in the same room and break bread, with the corporate media acting as the properly neutral host...
The underlying message, never stated or even acknowledged, is that there are no disputes that can't be resolved within the cozy confines of our "democratic" (oligarchic) system. Friends don't send friends to jail -- or smash their presses or abolish their political parties or line them up against the wall and shoot them.
It's not just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark. We already know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals hate Rumsfeld or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic, right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more "truthiness" than truth.
Obviously, Colbert is not the first ironic warrior to train his sights on the powerful. What the insurgent culture jammers at Adbusters did for Madison Avenue, and the Barbie Liberation Organization did for children's toys, and Seinfeld did for the sitcom, and the Onion did for the small-town newspaper, Jon Stewart discovered he could do for television news. Now Colbert, Stewart's spawn, has taken on the right-wing message machine.
In the late 1960s, the Situationists in France called such ironic mockery "detournement," a word that roughly translates to "abduction" or "embezzlement." It was considered a revolutionary act, helping to channel the frustration of the Paris student riots of 1968. They co-opted and altered famous paintings, newspapers, books and documentary films, seeking subversive ideas in the found objects of popular culture. "Plagiarism is necessary," wrote Guy Debord, the famed Situationist, referring to his strategy of mockery and semiotic inversion. "Progress demands it. Staying close to an author's phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas."
For those of us outside the halls of power, it was a moment of liberation cutting through all the polite lies and pretense that make the everyday murder and oppression of this regime possible. For those in power it was a brief, involuntary look in the mirror of the reality based world view, a dim vision of how we see them--in the reflection of the guillotine.
Just kidding, right?