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All Kidding Aside

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 1, 2006; 2:21 PM

President Bush on Saturday night had the audience at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in stitches. With doppelganger comedian Steve Bridges alongside -- playing his inner self -- Bush poked gentle fun of his own mangling of the English language, his belligerence and his feelings about the media.

Then Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert ripped those stitches out.

Colbert was merciless, reserving his most potent zingers for the people in spitting distance: The president who took the nation to war on false pretenses and the press corps that let him do it.

The boozy bonhomie of the annual event is intended to serve as a balm for the often tense relationship between the White House and the reporters who cover it.

Bush largely delivered on his side of the bargain. Colbert delivered something else entirely.

From the Bush part of the evening, Bridges (as Bush): "Here I am at another one of these dang press dinners. Could be home asleep, little Barney curled up at my feet. But noooo, I gotta pretend I like being here. The media really ticks me off, the way they try to embarrass me by not editing what I say. . . . "

Bush: "I am absolutely delighted to be here, as is Laura."

Bridges: "She's hot. Muy caliente ."

Bridges on diplomacy: "Some of my critics in the international community call me arrogant. I will not even honor them with a response. Screw 'em."

I haven't been able to find a complete transcript of the Bush/Bridges talk. ABC News has some excerpts; here's more from the Newsbusters blog. Here's the complete video from ABC news. The Bush duo was rip-roaringly funny -- until the end of the performance, when the real president added a brief postscript.

"As most of my predecessors have known, it's really important to be able to laugh in this job and I thank you for giving us the chance to laugh tonight. I got one more thing I want to share with you that's on my mind, something that's never far from my mind: God bless our troops, God bless the cause of freedom and God bless America. Thank you."

It was a sudden, bracing reminder that the nation is at war. And, as it turned out, it was a fitting segue way into Colbert's performance.

Colbert stayed in character as the bombastic, over-the-top, right-wing cable TV host he plays on the Colbert Report.

"Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% 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. . . .

"The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. 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. And 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. . . .

"Listen, let's review 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. Put them 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."

Daily Kos blogger Frederick seems to have the most extensive transcript of Colbert's talk. Video of Colbert is widely available, for instance at for instance at Crooks and Liars and YouTube.

C-SPAN has video of the entire event, starting with Helen Thomas's sashay down the red carpet.

The Coverage

So was the biggest news of the night that Bush so effectively and humorously poked fun at himself? Or that a captive president -- and, to a lesser degree, the press corps -- had so sit and watch as they were subjected to devastating, vitriolic satire?

Possibly because they themselves were targets, most reporters chose to downplay the Colbert part of the evening.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times with some of her favorite bits: "Mr. Bush: 'I'm sorry that Vice President Cheney couldn't be here tonight. I agree with the press that Dick was a little late reporting that hunting episode down in Texas. In fact, I didn't know a thing about it till I saw him on "America's Most Wanted." '

"Mr. Bridges: 'You reporters would go nuts if you knew the full story. He was drunk as a skunk! On one beer! Light beer! Oh, people were duckin' and divin' for cover. I wish I'd been there. I saw him coming down the hall the other day, I looked at him and said, "Don't shoot!" '

"White House officials and Mr. Bridges said the double stand-up was the idea of the president, who last year ceded his spot on the program to his wife and in previous years relied on slide shows as visual props for his routines. As the 2,500-plus guests at the annual event know, by tradition the president is supposed to make fun of himself in an effort to establish his regular-guy credentials and ingratiate himself with the press."

Bumiller doesn't even mention Colbert at all.

Teresa Wiltz of The Washington Post, Ann Oldenburg of USA Today, Elizabeth White of the Associated Press and Lisa Lambert of Reuters have more.

Not Laughing

Editor & Publisher notes: "A blistering comedy 'tribute' to President Bush by Comedy Central's faux talk show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent Dinner Saturday night left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close. . . .

"Colbert, who spoke in the guise of his talk show character, who ostensibly supports the president strongly, urged the Bush to ignore his low approval ratings, saying they were based on reality, 'and reality has a well-known liberal bias.' . . .

"Colbert closed his routine with a video fantasy where he gets to be White House Press Secretary, complete with a special 'Gannon' button on his podium. By the end, he had to run from Helen Thomas and her questions about why the U.S. really invaded Iraq and killed all those people.

"As Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and First Lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling, and handshakes, and left immediately."

Here's what CNN's Ed Henry reported: "Now, the president ended his remarks by -- his official remarks by saying that it's really important to laugh in this job. That's probably more true than ever, now that he's so low in the polls. But I have to tell you, near the end of Stephen Colbert's routine, the president didn't really seem to be laughing. He actually seemed to be a little bit annoyed at some of the pokes from Stephen Colbert, it went on for a bit."

The View From the Blogs

Blogger Peter Daou looks at the mainstream media coverage and finds: "Colbert's performance is sidestepped and marginalized while Bush is treated as light-hearted, humble, and funny. Expect nothing less from the cowardly American media. The story could just as well have been Bush and Laura's discomfort and the crowd's semi-hostile reaction to Colbert's razor-sharp barbs. In fact, I would guess that from the perspective of newsworthiness and public interest, Bush-the-playful-president is far less compelling than a comedy sketch gone awry, a pissed-off prez, and a shell-shocked audience."

Blogger Billmon writes: "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 . . . 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."

Video Dog writes in Salon: "The real sign of Stephen Colbert's success at the White House Correspondents' Dinner wasn't his jokes -- which, from beginning to end, were spot-on . . . from Bush's handling of the war ('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.'), his low-30s approval rating ('I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68 percent approve of the job he's not doing?'), to sidelong whacks at John McCain, Fox News and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. And no, it wasn't the grim-looking handshake he received from the President or the icy glare he received from Laura Bush that let us know that he hit his targets. . . .

"The proof of his accuracy lies in how badly the . . . Washington press corps reacted. After all, this wasn't the usual baby-soft slapstick they usually get at the correspondents' dinner . . . [F]or the most part the press sat on their hands -- while just moments before, they were laughing uproariously at President Bush's incredibly lame skit with a Bush impressionist. That was Colbert's real feat: Showing us the real Washington media world, where everyone worries so much about offending someone, anyone , that the least bit of frank talk turns them into obedient little church mice."

The Moderate Voice has an extensive roundup of blogger response, including several conservatives.

Blogger Ed Morrissey , for instance, writes: "There were two problems with Colbert's act. The first is that it wasn't funny, and the second was that it didn't keep with the spirit of the evening. The Correspondents Dinner prides itself on making the evening a safe venue for all, and the humor is supposed to stay self-deprecating. Attacking one's opponents in this forum is considered bad manners. Colbert has no grasp of his audience or the event, and he paid the price for it. And that price was painful indeed."

My Night

I'll have more in tomorrow's column about my own personal experiences on Saturday night. Short version: I met Karl Rove, but I didn't feel good about it.

Bush: Laws Don't Apply

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe weighs in with the most authoritative -- and most alarming -- story yet on Bush's proclivity for signing statements.

"President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. . . .

"Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty 'to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.' Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to 'execute' a law he believes is unconstitutional."

Here's Bush's M.O: "Bush is the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, giving Congress no chance to override his judgments. Instead, he has signed every bill that reached his desk, often inviting the legislation's sponsors to signing ceremonies at which he lavishes praise upon their work.

"Then, after the media and the lawmakers have left the White House, Bush quietly files 'signing statements' -- official documents in which a president lays out his legal interpretation of a bill for the federal bureaucracy to follow when implementing the new law. The statements are recorded in the federal register. . . .

"In his signing statements, Bush has repeatedly asserted that the Constitution gives him the right to ignore numerous sections of the bills -- sometimes including provisions that were the subject of negotiations with Congress in order to get lawmakers to pass the bill. He has appended such statements to more than one of every 10 bills he has signed."

Some of the examples Savage cites include anti-torture provisions, requirements to give information about government activity to congressional oversight committees, affirmative-action provisions, whistle-blower protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Oh, just go read the story .

Here's a nifty graphic .

Here are some examples of signing statements, from the Globe; here are all of them, from the Federal Register.

Why have these signing statements gone largely unnoticed for so long? It's worth pointing out that, unlike virtually every other document made public by the White House, the press office does not actually send the signing statements out by e-mail to the press corps. Instead, reporters have to go look for them.

Secrecy Watch

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "As the Bush administration has dramatically accelerated the classification of information as 'top secret' or 'confidential,' one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"That is only one way the Bush administration, from its opening weeks in 2001, has asserted control over information. By keeping secret so many directives and actions, the administration has precluded the public -- and often members of Congress -- from knowing about some of the most significant decisions and acts of the White House. . . .

In Part Two today, Silva writes about the White House's "double approach" to secrecy: "clamping down on unauthorized disclosures while releasing documents on carefully chosen occasions." That, he writes, "illustrates how the White House has attempted to manage closely held government information since the terrorism of Sept. 11 made Bush a wartime president.

" 'It's selective secrecy for political control,' said Tom Blanton, director of the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University. 'Secrecy puts power in the hands of officials who then can abuse it. It also covers up the abuse.' "

Mission Impossible

CNN reports: "Three years after President Bush declared major combat over in Iraq, Americans have strong doubts that the United States will fulfill the promise of his 'Mission Accomplished' backdrop, a poll released Monday found.

"The CNN poll, conducted April 21-23 by Opinion Research Corporation, found that only 9 percent thought the U.S. mission in Iraq had been accomplished, while another 40 percent believed it would be complete someday.

"Another 44 percent said the United States would never accomplish its goals in Iraq, where American troops are still battling insurgents three years after the invasion that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. . . .

"Bush's May 1, 2003, victory speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was a carefully managed piece of political theater, from his flight suit-clad arrival aboard an S-3 Viking antisubmarine jet to the 'Mission Accomplished' banner that hung from the carrier's bridge."

Greg Mitchell writes in Editor and Publisher about how the mainstream media at the time hailed it as a fitting moment of triumph.

Here's the text of the victory speech. Here's the video . And here's the archetypal photo by Larry Downing of Reuters.

Bolten on Fox

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten made his television debut in his new role yesterday, describing his West Wing shakeup as an attempt 'to get our mojo back' at a time when a politically weakened President Bush faces election-year challenges over war, immigration and energy costs.

"Appearing on 'Fox News Sunday' just days after recruiting the show's former host to be the new White House press secretary, Bolten said he wants to foster 'a more open environment to the press and to the public.' But he forecast no shifts in the substance of Bush's presidency, defending the tax cuts and other policies that have been central to the administration. . . .

"Bolten's choice of Fox for his first interview since taking over as chief of staff April 14 provided fodder for critics of the relationship between the White House and its favorite news network."

Here's the transcript of Bolten's interview with Chris Wallace.

Rove Redux

Murray Waas of the National Journal and Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas of Newsweek try to explain how it came to pass that Karl Rove testified before grand jurors for a fifth time last week.

Writes Waas: "It has been widely reported that Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has been trying to determine whether Rove tried to mislead the FBI and the grand jury in the early stages of the leak probe when he failed to disclose that he had talked to Cooper about Plame three days before she was outed as a CIA officer. But it has not been previously known that much of the questioning of Rove on Wednesday also focused on the contradictions between Cooper's and Rove's accounts of their crucial July 11 conversation."

Write Isikoff and Thomas: "It is impossible to know if Fitzgerald will make a case against Rove. But it is possible now to trace how Fitzgerald came to suspect Rove of not telling the whole truth."

Meanwhile, Toni Locy of the Associated Press catches up with the federal judge who jailed former New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to name her source during the CIA leak investigation.

"Thomas F. Hogan, chief judge of Washington's federal district court, said he made the right call when he ruled there was no First Amendment protection for reporters to keep their sources confidential, especially in criminal matters. Hogan spoke Friday at a meeting of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

"Miller wasn't an innocent bystander, Hogan said. 'She was an actor in the commission of a crime,' he said. 'She was part of the transfer of information that was a crime.' "

Snow Forecast

Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek: "Snow is telegenic, supremely self-confident and quick with a zinger; the daily scuffles with the press corps will be easy. But those same qualities may make it hard for him to abide by the first law of flacks: relay the news, don't make it."

On CNN, Howard Kurtz asked Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times about Tony Snow's prospects as incoming press secretary.

"BUMILLER: Well, he'll get a bit of a honeymoon right in the beginning, I think.

"KURTZ: For a week?

"BUMILLER: Probably. We'll see. Until the really disastrous news happens."

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