NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
The Colbert Blackout

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

The traditional media's first reaction to satirist Stephen Colbert's uncomfortably harsh mockery of President Bush and the press corps at Saturday night's White House Correspondents Association dinner was largely to ignore it.

Instead, the coverage primarily focused on the much safer, self-deprecatory routine in which Bush humorously paired up with an impersonator playing his inner self.

The result, however, was a wave of indignation from the liberal side of the blogosphere over what some considered a willful disregard of the bigger story: That a captive, peevish president (and his media lapdogs) actually had to sit and listen as someone explained to them what they had done wrong; that the Bush Bubble was forcibly violated, right there on national television.

Now the mainstream media is back with its second reaction: Colbert just wasn't funny.

Yes, it turns out Colbert has brought the White House and its press corps together at long last, creating a sense of solidarity rooted in something they have in common: Neither of them like being criticized.

See yesterday's column for more about the Colbert and Bush performances. YouTube has the video and Daily Kos has the transcript of Colbert's speech.

The Second Wave

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post's gossip column: "The reviews from the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are in, and the consensus is that President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges stole Saturday's show -- and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.

" 'You have to have a great deal of confidence to do self-deprecating humor, especially when you're being attacked day in and day out,' said Landon Parvin, who helped Bush and Bridges write the jokes contrasting Bush's public voice with his supposed inner thoughts."

It's not entirely clear from whom, besides Bush's own joke-writer, Argetsinger and Roberts divined what they described as the consensus view. But it's a safe bet that, at a minimum, they were speaking for The Washington Post newsroom.

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert's biting routine at the White House Correspondents Association dinner won a rare silent protest from Bush aides and supporters Saturday when several independently left before he finished.

" 'Colbert crossed the line,' said one top Bush aide, who rushed out of the hotel as soon as Colbert finished. Another said that the president was visibly angered by the sharp lines that kept coming.

" 'I've been there before, and I can see that he is [angry],' said a former top aide. 'He's got that look that he's ready to blow.'

"Colbert's routine was similar to what he does on his show, the Colbert Report, but much longer on the topic of Bush, suggesting that the president is out of touch with reality. Aides and reporters, however, said that it did not overshadow Bush's own funny routine, which featured an impersonator who told the audience what Bush was thinking when he spoke dull speech lines."

On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann asked Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank if Colbert crossed the line.

Milbank: "I don't think he really crossed the line. I just think he wasn't terribly funny. And he had the misfortune of following Bush, who actually did put on one of the better performances of his presidency."

He added: "The president's used to getting abused. He didn't get anything worse than he got at Coretta Scott King's funeral, which was certainly a bit more outlandish than this. So I think he probably comes out ahead in this whole thing."

CNN and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz mocks the outraged liberals: "What's more, you may be interested to know that there's a MEDIA COVERUP of the Colbert performance. The MSM don't want you to know about how the Comedy Central man made them look bad! (Never mind that the thing was carried on C-SPAN and the video is widely available online. I played two clips of Colbert on my CNN show, so apparently I didn't get the memo.)"

Frank James writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog: "I sensed a lot of uneasiness in the audience during Colbert's routine. It would make Republican partisans uneasy for obvious reasons.

"But I also had the sense that Colbert's toughness on Bush made people squirm because it raised that age-old question that goes back to the republic's start. How do you criticize the president without disrespecting the presidency?"

Scott Collins writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "[O]verall, the routine could've used some judicious editing; watch the performance again and you'll see that Colbert never really builds to any high point. It's just a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss gags."

But Collins also suggests that coverage of the night should have given ample play to both Colbert and Bush's performance. And he writes: "The crowd included many of the same people who've built Colbert up into the hottest thing to hit the Beltway since Karl Rove. Now he comes and pokes fun of them and most of them sat there in their finery looking stone-faced and glum. Did they find Colbert's routine as messy as I did? Maybe. But it seems a lot more likely that the D.C. journos are proving humor-impaired when anyone points out their performance in the run-up to the Iraq war. Hey, you invited Colbert. If you don't want to yuk it up, do a raffle."

Noam Scheiber writes in the New Republic: "My sense is that the blogosphere response is more evidence of a new Stalinist aesthetic on the left -- until recently more common on the right -- wherein the political content of a performance or work of art is actually more important than its entertainment value."

Greg Mitchell at Editor and Publisher points out that in 2004, journalists howled in laughter as Bush, at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, poked fun at his inability to find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Over at Comedy Central

Lisa de Moraes writes in The Washington Post: "Comedy Central's faux news show host Stephen Colbert stupidly delivered a stingingly satirical speech about President Bush and those who cover him at Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner because 'he was under the impression they had hired him to do the thing he does on TV every night,' Jon Stewart quipped last night on his 'Daily Show.'

"At this annual black-tie dinner, Stewart explained to his viewers, the White House and the correspondents who cover it 'consummate their loveless marriage.' . . .

"Colbert called it 'the greatest weekend of my entire life.' What some reported as a tepid reception to his patter was actually 'very respectful silence,' Colbert joked on his show last night. 'The crowd practically carried me out on their shoulders' -- albeit before he was ready to leave, he added."

Stewart also said he had "never been prouder" of Colbert, for delivering what he called "a 20 minute keynote address that I can only describe as balls-alicious."

When Colbert made his regular appearance on Stewart's show to promote his own, Stewart congratulated him on an "amazing weekend."

Colbert: "Thank you, Jon, I'm sure are you talking about all the weight I lost."

Stewart: "Is that because you had to run from Washington?"

Colbert: "It's like an ultramarathon, about 250 miles. In wing tips."

More From The Web

Playwright Chris Durang writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "The media's ignoring Colbert's effect at the White House Correspondents Dinner is a very clear example of what others have called the media's penchant for buying into the conservative/rightwing 'narrative.'

"In this instance, the 'narrative' is that President Bush, for all his missteps, has a darling sense of humor and is a real regular guy, able to poke delightful fun at himself and his penchant for mis-using and mispronouncing words.

"Who cares if he lied to start a war? (Or chose to ignore all contrary opinion, which as far as war-starting goes, is pretty crummy.) Who cares if he declares he's above the law, and according to the Boston Globe yesterday there are something like 750 laws he's decided don't apply to him as 'Commander-in-Chief'? . . .

"Colbert's was a brave and shocking performance. And for the media to pretend it isn't newsworthy is a total bafflement. And a symbol of how shoddy and suspect the media is."

Michael Scherer writes in Salon that Colbert's "imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head -- Bill O'Reilly meets Scott McClellan -- uncovered the inner workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate. . . .

"It's not just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark. We already know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals hate Rumsfeld, or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic, right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more 'truthiness' than truth."

Meanwhile, over at thankyoustephencolbert.org , there are more than 20,000 thank-yous and counting.

Some Thoughts About the Dinner

For all the talk about the Bush and Colbert performances, the White House correspondents dinner is fundamentally not about the headliners, but about the scene.

Once upon a time, I imagine, there was great value in throwing a party where journalists and politicians could mingle and shmooze and celebrate the things they have in common.

And indeed, if the press and this particular White House had an even moderately functional professional relationship, then a chance to build personal relationships would be a nice bonus.

But it's not a functional professional relationship. From the president down to the freshest press office intern, this White House seems to delight in not answering even our most basic questions.

So the last thing in the world we need is a big party where the only appropriate mode of communication is sucking up.

Ideally, every chance we get to talk to these people, we should be pumping them for information. And ideally we would be consistent in expressing our frustration with them -- not for personal reasons, not for partisan reasons, but because they're making it nearly impossible for us to do our job, which is to inform the public on what's going on in the White House and why.

The coziness of the dinner is a perfect example of what's gone wrong with access journalism. What's in it for the readers?

Al Eisele , Editor-at-Large of The Hill, writes in Huffingtonpost.com: "The White House Correspondents Association's annual dinner, which I just attended, should go the way of the Linotype, the teletype and the typewriter.

"If ever there was anything that proves to the rest of the world that the Washington press corps is out of touch, out of synch and out to lunch, it is this awful Spring lemming-like migration of Washington journalists, politicians, lawmakers -- although to their credit they were few and far between -- lobbyists, political junkies and celebrity seekers to the Hinkley Hilton as the press kow-tows to the powers that be."

Eiesele says he's not coming back. I won't go that far. I kind of have to be there. But it's certainly a mixed bag.

My Night

So let me tell you a bit about my night. After exchanging brief pointless smalltalk with Tony Snow, Dan Bartlett and even George Clooney at the Newsweek pre-dinner party, I repaired to the ballroom where I found myself sitting next to -- of all people -- Kristen Silverberg.

Now you may not know who Kristen Silverberg is, but I've been following her movement through Bush's inner circle for quite a while now. First she was a campaign worker, then a young aide in the chief of staff's office, then a high-level policy adviser.

Silverberg was considered the White House's ultimate rising star, and she really caught my attention when -- after Karl Rove was promoted to deputy chief of staff and moved downstairs into an office just down the hall from the Oval -- Silverberg moved into the highly karmic second-floor space that he vacated, and that before him had been occupied by Hillary Clinton. (See my now out-of-date White House floorplan .)

Not long after that, however, she decided to follow Condoleeezza Rice to the State Department, where she now serves as assistant secretary for international organization affairs.

In pretty much any other circumstance, if I had a chance to talk to Kristen Silverberg, I would grill her about Bush's plans for Iran, or about her mentor Karl Rove, or on the inner workings of the White House.

But here she was sitting next to me as the guest of a Washington Post White House correspondent, and it wouldn't have been appropriate. Not to mention, she's sweet as pie. Heck, I was pushing the limits of propriety by introducing her to everyone at the table this way: "She's John Bolton's boss!!!"

We ended up talking about Karl Rove, but only in the most general terms. I noted that she might be Rove's protege, but that -- according to my wife, at least -- Rove is my greatest muse. (He does seem to inspire some of my finer columns .)

As a result, Silverberg very kindly offered to introduce me to my muse. I said I couldn't possibly. She insisted. And next thing I knew we were over at table 54, chatting with Rove himself.

In person, Rove was charming. He looked genuinely confused when I told him that the headline of my Friday's column had been " Rove Worrier ," a reference to his possibly imminent indictment in the CIA leak investigation.

And in fact, he didn't look the least bit worried.

The conversation quickly turned to the fact that he adores Silverberg and thoroughly grills every one of her potential suitors.

Of course, what I wanted to do was ask him: Why did he lie to journalists about not having been one of the people who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak? What exactly did he tell the grand jury last week? How does he feel about getting kicked across the hall into a windowless office? (He's moving into Michael Gerson's old digs.) Is there any serious chance of a detente with the press?

But this was not the time. Instead, I went back to my table with Silverberg, still not talking about Iran.

And not only had I gotten nothing useful out of Rove -- but now I was beholden to Silverberg.

As luck would have it, I was able to wipe that particular slate clean in short order. Silverberg kept eyeing actor James Denton, the hunky plumber from "Desperate Housewives," who was sitting a few tables away. I went over and persuaded him to come say hello. Silverberg was thrilled. And I was off the hook.

But what value did any of this have to my readers? Not much.

Poll Watch

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday found Bush's approval rating at 34%, two points under his previous low. He also received the lowest ratings of his presidency on his handling of the economy, energy and foreign affairs. He tied his previous low on Iraq: 32%."

Here are the complete results .

In fact, Bush is getting it from all sides now. An all-time high of 45 percent of those polled said he's too conservative; an all-time high of 19 percent said he's too liberal; and an all-time low of 28 percent said he's about right.

CBS reports: "Only 33 percent approve of his job performance, Mr. Bush's lowest approval rating yet in CBS News polls. A majority -- 58 percent of those polled -- say they disapprove of the president. Mr. Bush appears to be losing support from his own party. His approval rating among Republicans has dropped to 68 percent."

Here are those complete results .

The View From the Ivory Tower

The Associated Press reports: "If his presidency ended now, Republican George W. Bush would go down in history as a failure, according to a majority of college history and political science professors surveyed nationwide."

Here's more information on the poll.

Abramoff Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "The Secret Service has agreed to turn over White House visitor logs that will show how often convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff met with Bush administration officials -- and with whom he met."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The agreement was announced Monday by Judicial Watch, a legal group generally associated with conservative groups and open-government issues, which had filed suit to force the disclosure of the logs. . . .

"[T]he unedited visitor logs will be released to Judicial Watch by the Secret Service by May 10. The group has said it will then make the logs public through the Internet."

Libby Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "Lawyers for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby urged a federal judge Monday to force several media organizations to turn over e-mails, drafts of news articles and reporters' notes they say the former top White House aide needs to receive a fair trial in the CIA leak case."

Plame Watch

David Shuster reported on Hardball with Chris Matthews last night: "MSNBC has learned new information about the damage caused by the White House leaks. Intelligence sources says Valerie Wilson was part of an operation three years ago tracking the proliferation of nuclear weapons material into Iran. And the sources allege that when Mrs. Wilson's cover was blown, the administration's ability to track Iran's nuclear ambitions was damaged as well."

Appointee Watch

A new report from the House Government Reform Committee Democrats finds that in the administration's first five years, the number of political appointees on the federal payroll has soared while the number of minority and female political appointees has declined dramatically."

"President Bush has packed federal agencies with political appointees - many with suspect qualifications," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) "The President has added hundreds of political appointees to the federal payroll, raising costs to taxpayers and reducing efficiency."

Mission Not Accomplished

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Three years after delivering his 'mission accomplished' speech on Iraq, President Bush on Monday declared another turning point had arrived with the establishment of a permanent government in Baghdad."

Here's Bush's statement .

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing with Scott McClellan:

"Q I'm asking you, based on a reporter's curiosity, could he stand under a sign again that says, 'Mission Accomplished'?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Now, Peter, Democrats have tried to raise this issue, and, like I said, misrepresenting and distorting the past --

"Q This is not --

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- which is what they're doing, does nothing to advance the goal of victory in Iraq.

"Q I mean, it's a historical fact that we're all taking notice of --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the focus ought to be on achieving victory in Iraq and the progress that's being made, and that's where it is. And you know exactly the Democrats are trying to distort the past.

"Q Let me ask it another way: Has the mission been accomplished?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Next question.

"Q Has the mission been accomplished?

"MR. McCLELLAN: We're on the way to accomplishing the mission and achieving victory."


On his MSNBC Show yesterday, Chris Matthews also had a friendly chat with Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director.

MATTHEWS: "What was the selling point for Tony Snow as the new presidential press secretary?"

WALLACE: "Well, you'd have to ask Tony. . . . [But] to speak for George W. Bush is a privilege. We can all really just muck it up. He speaks with such clarity and he has such conviction. And he's really someone who cares much more about doing the right thing than about opinion polls. And it is a pleasure to speak for someone like that."

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive