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Every year, a celebrity, often a comedian, is invited to roast the President at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual gathering of journalists who regularly cover the White House and the President. But it isn’t every year that the President has “that look that he’s ready to blow,” as an aide of President Bush expressed it after comedian Stephen Colbert delivered his speech in 2006.
Colbert delivered his lines with militant irony, professing to approve of the very things about Bush he was in fact attacking. He satirized a host of topics including the typically Republican opposition to big governments by referencing the war in Iraq: “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,” he said. He then turned to Bush’s decreasing popularity:
Now, I know there are some polls out there saying that this man has a thirty-two percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls… We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.
While Colbert’s mock defense of Bush took up most of the sixteen minute-long speech, he didn’t spare the gathered press corps either: “As excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America. With the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the president’s side, and the vice president’s side,” he said before reviewing “the rules”:
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!
Colbert’s sarcastic performance was broadcast live on the cable network C-SPAN and viewed on YouTube 2.7 million times in the first forty-eight hours after it was posted. By calling to account some of the world’s most powerful people as they sat, grinning uncomfortably, in the camera’s glare, he affirmed his status as someone who speaks “truthiness” to power.
If his intent was of to shame the president and the press into improvement, it’d be hard to call it a success. But judging from online discussions of the speech, a good portion of the public experienced it as an empowering emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Liberal columnist Dan Savage, for example, referred to it as “one of the things that kept people like me sane during the darkest days of the Bush years.” For Bush’s critics, the speech felt like a victory. As with all victories, it was important for morale.
An overall comic tension was created by the incongruity between the celebratory format — with Bush himself only a few feet from the podium — and the scathing content of Colbert’s speech. To many people, especially Colbert fans, it was hilarious. However, relatively few people in the room laughed or otherwise applauded Colbert during his speech. The strength of Colbert’s ironic delivery was that to laugh was to admit that you got the joke — and the joke was on Bush, the Administration and the entire press corps. The audience’s uncomfortable refusal to give in and laugh at Colbert’s jokes thus indirectly affirmed the seriousness of his attack.
Aware that his real audience was not the people present at the dinner see PRINCIPLE: Play to the audience that isn’t there, Colbert managed to deliver his entire performance with a minimum amount of comforting feedback from the audience. It worked — but only because he had the confidence and professionalism to pull it off.
For his performance, Colbert adopted the role of the character that he plays on his satirical news show, the Colbert Report. This same-name persona — whom Colbert has described in many interviews as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” — is carefully modeled on typical male Fox News hosts such as Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. Because the artifice of Colbert’s persona is obvious, there is no deception of the audience. Yet his critique remains indirect. It requires that the audience draw the conclusions.
Instead of directly challenging Bush’s reasoning, Colbert ridiculed it by feigning total agreement. Enthusiastically extrapolating from Bush’s statements in ways Bush would not, Colbert carried the unspoken assumptions through to their presumably logical conclusions: “The greatest thing about this man is that he’s steady. You know where he stands,” Colbert said about Bush. “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday — no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will,” Colbert concluded. It was the seeming logical outcome of Bush’s own reasoning but at the same time, of course, it was unacceptable to Bush, as it really pointed out the illogic of Bush’s “logic”.
Taking on a character enabled Colbert to attack and ridicule the president in ways that would not have been permitted to the outright preacher, politician, or social reformer.