Three years ago this week, Stephen Colbert turned Washington on its ear with his in-your-face performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
It may not have had a lasting impact on the nation’s capital, or even on the WHCA Dinner: After a comedic colonic with super-safe Rich Little and barely decipherable Craig Ferguson, the dinner threatens to make news again this year with Wanda Sykes, a black woman who plays blue and isn’t afraid to state her strongly held political views.
But Colbert has gone on to make his mark on Washington in another way — as the world’s only comedian to make the House of Representatives a major part of his shtick.
On Oct. 18, 2005 — the second episode of “The Colbert Report” — the host flashed a salty eye at the camera and proclaimed: “Congressional districts: You are in one right now, but what do you really know about it? Well, there are 435 of them, each exquisitely gerrymandered by a wise incumbent.”
With that, Colbert launched “Better Know a District,” a would-be 435-part series of interviews with members that has exposed the public to the sometimes-anonymous lower-chamber members.
“He’s discovered a wealth of material that most comics give up because the material isn’t as well-known as the president or some other such official,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
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Norton has appeared on Colbert’s show several times, and she credits him with doing more to help spread the word about D.C. voting rights “than any single instrument we have used.”
But there is a danger in prostrating before the altar of Colbert.
In the show’s second season, Colbert induced Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) to say that he fancied cocaine and “the company of prostitutes” because “it’s a fun thing to do.” Though it’s clear that Wexler was playing along, not everyone appreciated the joke.
Then there is the case of Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who could not name more than three of the Ten Commandments when Colbert asked — despite the fact that Westmoreland had co-sponsored a bill providing for the tablets to be displayed in Georgia courthouses. A Republican Hill source told POLITICO that Westmoreland’s BKAD segment — and the additional footage that never made it on air — weighed into Westmoreland’s decision not to run for governor in 2010.
In 2007, Rahm Emanuel — then chairman of the Democratic Caucus — warned freshman members against going toe-to-toe with Colbert. Emanuel, now Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, ultimately softened a bit; at a charity event last fall, the former congressman said he knew that “deep down, underneath the Republican character you see on TV, there’s still a good man, there’s still hope for him. It’s the same way we feel about Joe Lieberman.”
While Colbert’s show may be telling the 18-to-34 demographic more about the House than it hears anywhere else, two Colbert- and Congress-watchers say that “Better Know a District” isn’t having quite the effect it did in its early days.
“I think the impact has declined somewhat,” said Fred Beuttler, the deputy historian of the House of Representatives. “In th beginning, you had these new fresh faces you had never seen before, and some of them were quite funny, and they were getting it; they were inside the joke. After he got a little nastier, a lot of members started pulling away. There was a real sense that this guy will never help you.”
Ross Baker, an expert on Congress from Rutgers University, thinks Colbert has gotten softer on his guests. “Since Colbert has stopped ambushing members of Congress, I think his impact has lessened,” said Baker. Colbert, through his publicist, declined an interview request, and the show’s producers similarly refused to talk about the series.
Once an almost-weekly staple of the show, BKAD seemed destined for the creative burial ground during last year’s writers’-strike-shortened season, when only three segments aired. But it seems to be back this year, as four segments have aired, including two in April. Colbert’s most recent subject/victim was Rep. Aaron Schock, the young Republican from Illinois’ 18th Congressional District who indulged Colbert’s mock hang-up over the congressman’s “six-pack abs.”
Schock was the 56th member to submit to the series, making Colbert’s half-joking goal of profiling each congressional district — and thereby filling in “the Big Board,” a graphic map of the United States he shows at the conclusion of each installment — 13 percent of the way there.
“He has a huge viewing audience,” said Schock, “and a viewing audience that in many cases would not pay attention to their members of Congress or the institution because they are viewing alternative media."
Participating members often spend at least two hours being interviewed by Colbert, who usually heads down from New York to Washington to tape multiple segments at a time. Occasionally, members will tape episodes at Colbert’s studio, in an office that is set up to look like one on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), for example, stopped by “The Colbert Report” earlier this year while en route to a freshman orientation conference in Boston.
“He is exceptionally good,” said Chaffetz. “Off-the-charts good. One of the things that differentiate him from almost any other reporter is the depth of his research. He had five pages, single-spaced, of background and data. He was pulling out facts from my life that I had never been questioned about before.”
After his segment ran, said Chaffetz, “I had literally thousands of people now join my Twitter and Facebook, and write letters and send e-mails, that would have [otherwise] never been introduced to a congressman from Utah.”
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who took the huge risk of being Colbert’s first BKAD subject back in 2005, explained: “If you are a member of Congress, ordinarily you are not allowed to have fun. You have to be serious. Because if you say one little wisecrack, then it’s as if you don’t care about children or senior citizens. This is one of the very few venues where a congressman can be part of the fun.”
Indeed, “The Colbert Report” remains one of the best opportunities a not-quite-name-brand member of Congress has to reach non-C-SPAN audiences, push issues they care about and prove that they are, in fact, warm-blooded, bipedal and not completely humorless.
“It’s both bad and good for the institution, and it’s bad and good for the members participating,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who was Colbert’s 16th guest.
Sherman’s district includes a large chunk of the San Fernando Valley, and Colbert harped on the notion that the area was “home to America’s multibillion-dollar pornography business.”
“He’s educating people,” Sherman said, albeit not on that point. “Look, there are 435districts. You’re in one of them. You have a member. That member is more accessible than your senator or governor, and he’s making policy in Washington, and perhaps your member has even been willing to go on ‘Colbert.’
One of the problems we have with students is apathy. Colbert helps counteract that. Another problem we have is derision and ridicule, and Colbert exacerbates that. But I think apathy is the bigger problem.”