Colbert: Not just a flop, but "rude" and "a bully" too

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen says that Colbert should have used his shot to tell Washington things it needed to hear.

Published May 4, 2006 1:49PM (EDT)

Just when we were thinking it was time to give this whole Stephen Colbert thing a rest, a voice in the mainstream media has us going all over again. If the New York Times decided Wednesday that Colbert's White House Correspondents' Association dinner performance was not funny, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen is determined to do it one better: Colbert was, his headline says this morning, "So Not Funny."

Cohen calls Colbert "rude" and "a bully," and says he took unfair advantage of the fact that the president of the United States knew that he couldn't rise up and punch him.

That's just the beginning.

Cohen agrees with us that Colbert matters, but not for the reasons we've cited. Cohen says it's important to talk about Colbert's performance because he is "representative of what too often passes for political courage, not to mention wit, in this country."

"His defenders -- and they are all over the blogosphere -- will tell you he spoke truth to power. This is a tired phrase, as we all know, but when it was fresh and meaningful it suggested repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries ... But in this country, anyone can insult the president of the United States. Colbert just did it, and he will not suffer any consequence at all."

So it's wrong to insult the president? That seems to be Cohen's point, at least sort of. While he insists that Colbert is "often funny" on TV, he says that Colbert had a different set of obligations to meet when he appeared in the same room with the press and the president. "On his own show he appeals to a self-selected audience that reminds him often of his greatness," Cohen writes. "In Washington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person's most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate -- to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important) Washington things it would have been good for them to hear. But he was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others."

OK, Cohen, we'll bite. What are the "things it would have been good" for Washington to hear? The list of subjects Colbert hit -- warrantless spying, 9/11, the war in Iraq, the personnel changes at the White House, the way the president deals with the press and the way the press treats him in return -- well, that struck us as a pretty good start. What have you got that's more important?

Update: Say what you will about Colbert's performance, it seems to be resonating in some unusual places. Colbert mocked George W. Bush Saturday night for governing "from the gut," and the Washington Post's editorial board appears to have picked up on the theme this morning. In an editorial taking Republicans to task for their overwrought concern over a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, the Post's editors write: "Perhaps President Bush was speaking from his gut when he said, 'I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English.' It seems more likely that he was speaking from the part of his brain that calculates how many Republicans dislike his immigration policy."

By Tim Grieve

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

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