Why D.C. Is Scared of Stephen Colbert

The best part of Stephen Colbert’s appearance before a House subcommittee to talk about immigrant farm labor wasn’t his opening statement, delivered in character. Oh, his performance as a pampered, supercilious, hypocritical Republican was great, as you’d expect. He complained about the indignities he suffered working for one day on a farm as part of the United Farm Workers “Take Our Jobs” campaign, which is intended to call the bluff of those who insist that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. On his Thursday show, Colbert had shown how picking beans was beneath him, literally; on Friday morning, seated next to UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, he departed from his bland written remarks to go with this:

During the question and answer portion of the hearing, Colbert transformed the subcommittee’s Repubs into straight men. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked, “Does one day in the field make you an expert witness?” Colbert: “I believe that one day of me studying anything makes me an expert.” Did he know many of the workers he toiled with were illegal? “I didn't ask them for their papers, though I had a strong urge to." And so on, right through volunteering, “I endorse all Republican policies without question."  

It was shtick, good shtick, but the best part came when Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) asked, “Why of all the things you could testify about did you choose this issue?” Colbert seemed to surprise himself as he fell out of character -- he rubbed his head in thought and said:

I like talking about people who don't have any power, and this seems like, one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. That’s an interesting contradiction to me. And, you know, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers”--and this seems like the least of brothers--right now. A lot of people are least brothers right now because the economy is so hard. And I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish anything like that. But migrant works suffer and have no rights.

It was a powerful moment, all the more so because catching Colbert out of character for more than a few seconds of unguarded laughter is almost as rare as catching snow leopards mating. It was perfectly natural for Colbert, who has taught Sunday school at his Catholic church in Montclair, NJ, to quote Matthew 25:31-45 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”). The tender earnestness of that brief moment when Colbert slipped the mask undercut any suggestion that his snottiness was a self-promoting stunt.

A bit of non-Colbert news was also made at the hearing. As we learned more about how farms are closing for lack of workers to harvest crops, several Republicans said that if you just paid higher wages and provided better working conditions, then real Americans would take these tough jobs. To which Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) rather pointedly noted that three of the GOPers at the other end of the dais had voted against raising the minimum wage.

Afterwards, the press mobbed Colbert, and we heard one male reporter ask, “Are you worried about trivializing a serious issue?” Colbert’s answer, if any, wasn’t audible, but here’s mine: Would you even be here (or would I even be writing this), about a hearing on immigrant farm labor conditions, if he didn’t “trivialize” this issue?

Anyway, it’s difficult to measure what’s trivial in Washington, where politicians like, say, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), regularly trivialize human suffering into homophobic, Islamaphobic, or anti-labor soundbites for political gain. (Gay marriage, says King, is a "purely socialist concept.")At the hearing, King told Colbert that he couldn’t tell from watching him on tape whether he was packing or unpacking corn. Colbert replied, "I was a corn packer. And I know that term is offensive to some people, because corn packer is a derogatory term for a gay Iowan, and I hope I didn’t offend anybody.”  

That was juvenile, but to listen to the Washington press corps, you’d think he’d just put a condom on the Washington Monument or something. Even the NBC guys were ruffled -- Chuck Todd said he was “offended” and couldn’t understand why all the committee members didn’t walk out, while Savannah Guthrie told Brian Williams on the Nightly News that the Dems may have hurt their chances by having a comedian come in and mock the institution they lead just before elections. Yeah, right -- the Dems are going down in defeat in November not because they couldn’t take a popular vote to preserve middle-class tax cuts while nudging rates a smidgen higher for the rich, but because they let Stephen Colbert mock congressional indifference to hardship in America. (As it turns out, even WSJ.com readers voted yes, 62% to 37%, to the question: “Should Stephen Colbert have testified in character before Congress?”)

To see the Beltway media types wrinkle their noses at the rambunctious comic was déjà vu all over again -- that’s exactly how they reacted at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when Colbert, in character, mocked the George Bush/Dick Cheney torture regime by saying “they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!” Maybe that was juvenile too, but it was also utterly fearless, bearding the malcompetents right in their own den.  

I’ll remember that at Colbert's March to Keep Fear Alive, at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. on October 30.

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