Why Colbert matters

Stephen Colbert laid Bush bare at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, but you won't read about it in the New York Times.

Tim Grieve
May 1, 2006 5:58PM (UTC)

We seldom start a week by sending readers away, but we'll have to make an exception today: If you haven't seen Stephen Colbert's appearance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, go watch it now.

We shouldn't have to say that. What Colbert did to the president and the press corps is news: He didn't shoot anybody Saturday night at the Hinckley Hilton, but he laid them out in just about every other way imaginable. It was as an "Emperor's New Clothes" moment played out with George W. Bush and his court forced to watch, and you ought to have seen it and talked about it and read reporting and analysis on it by now.


It's not your fault if you haven't. The Washington Post had a few not-quite-getting-the-point mentions of Colbert's act, but Colbert didn't get half the ink the paper spilled on appearances by George Clooney and Morgan Fairchild and other celebrities at Bloomberg's after-party. The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller wrote almost 1,000 words on the annual dinner this year, but not one of them was "Colbert."

The correspondents' dinner, Bumiller, wrote, is "supposed" to be a time for the president "to make fun of himself in an effort to establish his regular-guy credentials and ingratiate himself with the press." That's apparently what Bumiller's reporting on the dinner was supposed to be, too: one more chance to show what a swell guest Bush would be at our next backyard barbecue. Colbert didn't play along -- he didn't stick to the story line -- so he didn't get the laughs in the room, and he didn't get the attention his message deserved in the press.

So why did Colbert matter?


In trying to describe what Colbert did Saturday night, we have a little sympathy for the reporters who didn't do it themselves. In the core of his performance, standing just feet away from the president, Colbert adopted Bush's phony or just feckless "from the gut" style of talking and thinking, then revealed it for the international embarrassment that it is. You can't say something like that without sounding strident and heavy-handed; if you're a reporter for a major American newspaper, you can't really say it at all. But over the course of 10 minutes or so -- for the president, it must have seemed much longer -- that's what Colbert did. He put the lie to the Bush presidency: Iraq, domestic spying, the outing of Valerie Plame and all the folksy, consistency-and-character crap that's so often used to legitimize it all.

It's hard to explain that in a way that would satisfy a desk editor's balance meter. But that's assuming that anyone wanted to try. As Colbert made clear in a videotaped sketch, the White House press corps -- while showing some signs of life of late -- has, over time, been more than complicit in the Imagineering that surrounds this president. It helped sell his case on Iraq. It covered up for him on Plame's outing. It laughs at his jokes when it should be shining a light on an administration that went to war on a lie, turned a massive surplus into a massive dedicit, and stood by idly as a great American city faced death.

In the video, Colbert fantasized that he was the new White House press secretary, forced again and again to confront the question of why the administration invaded Iraq. Bush used to think that was a pretty funny one; at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner, Bush narrated a slide show of himself searching for those wascally WMD all around the Oval Office and under the cushions of a White House sofa. Some 2,400 dead Americans later, it's not really har-de-har-har humor anymore.


What it is is tragedy, and Colbert's video was painful to watch in a what-might-have-been sort of way. There's a moment where Colbert mashes together tapes of old press briefings to make it sound like all of the White House reporters are asking questions at once -- as if the press corps is rising up, as if the administration is being called to answer for all that it has done.

It hasn't happened that way in real life. The Elisabeth Bumillers of the world can't even let it happen in fantasy.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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