Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Thursday, May 04, 2006

  L'Affaire Colbert

In as much as virtually everybody now, including James Wolcott, has commented about Stephen Colbert's performance at Saturday's Correspondents Dinner, I'll have my say. The whole episode was pretty remarkable, but not so much for the reasons that pundits have batted around.

Sure, Colbert's satire was razor sharp and sometimes very inventive. But that's standard fare from him. As for the content of the monologue, I heard nothing that any one of us could not have banged out with a few hours of free time on a Thursday afternoon. "Misery Accomplished" was a nice touch, but the follies he poked and prodded are painfully obvious.

I'll grant you, it's notable how restrained the audience seemed to be. They guffawed loudly at a few hammy jokes directed at no person in particular, but whenever Colbert zeroed in on target, they froze up. On camera, many could be seen trying to stifle laughs. Reminds me of a tale Mark Twain told about an unusually stiff audience he encountered one night in New England, but that's another story. As for the display of timidity on Saturday, it's been years since anybody accused the Washington press corps of having courage; hardly remarkable that they chose to avoid laughing about the President's follies (to his face).

Neither is it unexpected that many news people would declare that Colbert's monologue simply wasn't amusing, or that they were shocked-shocked-by his rudeness at ridiculing Mister Bush (to his face). And Colbert's critique of the cowardice of journalists guaranteed that they would downplay his performance; so no surprise at all there.

Absolutely true to form as well that Mister Bush and his cheerleaders would see nothing humorous in the biting satire--and that Bush's critics found it to be hilarious. The wingers are notoriously humorless, and some on the left are not. Hence the reaction on line was nothing out of the ordinary; fussing to high heavens on the one side, dead silence on the other.

No, L'Affair Colbert was truly remarkable not for any of those reasons, though they have gotten the mass of attention on line. Characteristically, it is Billmon who gets closest to the deeper meaning of the episode: Colbert spoke the plain and brutal truth to George Bush in public.

What is remarkable is for the nation to find that remarkable. What is remakable is for the internets to be abuzz that a fellow citizen has managed to accost a President publicly for his dishonest and disastrous policies. For half of the nation to be overjoyed that somebody, finally, has spoken truth to Mister Bush's megalomania.

For the triumvirate of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld do not normally make public appearances where they may be accosted by anybody. Think of that, in a democracy no less. Even in Imperial Rome the Emperor had to submit himself fairly regularly to be cheered or jeered by public crowds, such as at the amphitheater. But in 21st century America, the rulers are trotted out only to the most carefully handpicked audiences. They are subjected, if that's the term, to absurdly craven compliments masquerading as questions. It is a reign of photo-ops, built layer by layer and laid end to end, the brick walls where democracy's to be imprisoned some day.

Take the election of 2004. Traditionally, presidential elections are a time when the candidates make a virtue of necessity and take great pains to be out and about among the public. Or at a minimum, they sit on their front porches and invite the public to come talk to them. Yet in 2004 the Vice President, to mention but one of the triumvirate, campaigned heavily at military bases. As John Dean commented to me at the time, the administration did not want him talking to anybody but people in uniform.

You were about to remind me however that Dick Cheney makes occasional appearances in baseball stadia, imitating the Roman emperors of old. But, so it seems to me, Mister Cheney is booed each time he does appear....and more's the point, he does not take questions from the crowd.

The Colbert episode highlights this extraordinary state of affairs where resentments swell up to great intensity in the citizenry, but have little outlet because our "leaders" refuse to show their faces in public and take their lumps as a democracy requires. (I need hardly remind you, my reader, that democracy means 'people power'.) The few times that one of them stumbles into an actual critic, therefore, the encounter seems explosive and the brutal truth nearly takes the breath away--from those of us who can now barely remember the day when Presidents and their "people" met with citizens pretty regularly. What is remarkable, then, is that we think it's remarkable for somebody to criticize the President in public.

As if to confirm that, today another uproar. Ray McGovern, a former CIA agent, asked Donald Rumsfeld at a public forum in Atlanta why he lied about WMD in Iraq. This simple question caused an enormous stir, on line as well as in the news shows. The reason for the stir, of course, is that never before has anybody managed to ask this obvious question of the Great Man in public.

Let's just ponder that for a moment. Our nation was deceived into a horrific and unnecessary invasion of a country overseas, and we find it remarkable, three years later, that one of the prime architects is asked why he lied to us.


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