Colbert Shocks the Media Silent
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For days the battle has raged on the Web: Did Stephen Colbert go too far in lampooning President Bush, to his face, at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night? Is that why his barbs did not generate more laughter around the room of 2700 journalists, celebrities and other guests? Or was it because he suggested the press was spineless in failing to confront the president on Iraq? Or was Colbert just not that funny? [ VIDEO]
In any case, the event has inspired debate on hundreds of political and media blogs, the posting of the video on dozens of sites, and massive traffic to E&P, where the first in-depth account of Colbert's performance was posted Saturday night.
You'd think from all the criiticism that the guy had based his routine on joking about launching a war and not finding the WMDs that inspired it. Oh, right, that was President Bush, two years ago.
Nevertheless, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post , appearing on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program Monday night, joined the ranks of those who attended the dinner who felt Colbert "was not funny." On the other hand, he said the president's routine that night with a Bush impersonator was a howl.
This is the same Milbank who last June mocked a congressional forum on the Downing Street memo, and said it was led by a "hearty band of playmates."
Certainly, deciding what's funny is subjective, sometimes a matter of taste (or tastelessness), but increasingly, also, partisan. We bring our politics to everything nowadays, although some may be more open to good satire than others, even when someone on "your side" is hit.
Still, with the knocks on Colbert increasing, I have to ask: Where was the outrage when President Bush made fun of not finding those pesky WMDs at a very similar media dinner -- in the same ballroom -- two years ago? It represents a shameful episode for the American media, and presidency, yet is rarely mentioned today.
It occurred on March 24, 2004. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Washington Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1,500. The main speaker: President George W. Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.
President Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It shows they are good sports, which many people (including the president) often doubt. It's all in good fun, except when it's in bad fun, such as on that night in March 2004.
That night, in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."
According to the transcript this was greeted with "laughter and applause" from the audience.
A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: "Nope, no weapons over there" (met with more "laughter and applause"), and then "Maybe under here?" (just "laughter" this time). Still searching, he settled for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.
There is no record of whether Dana Milbank attended that dinner, but his paper the following day seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey's report, carried on the front page of the Style section (under the headline, "George Bush, Entertainer in Chief"), led with Donald Trump's appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush's "recurring joke" of searching for the WMDs.
The Associated Press review was equally jovial: "President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media." In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president's slide show. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.
The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president's gag, David Corn of The Nation , said he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, had said at a similar dinner: "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."
The backlash only appeared a day or two later, and not, by and large, emerging from the media, but from Democrats and some Iraq veterans. Then it was mainly forgotten. I never understood why Sen. John Kerry did not air a tape of the episode every day during his hapless final drive for the White House.
In any case, another 1,900 Americans have died in Iraq since Bush's ha-ha home video. As it happens, the Downing Street memo, and a similar British document that surfaced recently, suggested that Bush doubted WMDs existed and "fixed" the intelligence to take the nation to war. What a riot.
At that same Downing Street memo forum at the Capitol last year that Milbank mocked, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, after cataloguing the bogus Bush case for WMDs and the Iraqi threat, looked out at the cameras and notepads, mentioned the March 24, 2004 dinner, and acted out the president looking under papers and table for those missing WMDs. "And the media was all yucking it up ... hahaha," McGovern said. "You all laughed with him, folks." Then he mentioned soldiers who had died "after that big joke."
Dana Milbank, who seems to like a good laugh, did not mention this in his hit piece the following day.
Greg Mitchell is editor of E&P and author of seven books on politics and history.