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Laughing With Our Presidents Or At Them?

Only in Washington can even comedy become controversy. For the city's 2006 version of the White House Correspondent's Dinner, organizers went after one of the hottest names in show business for the post-dinner entertainment – Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. They got him but now do they wished they hadn't? It appears Colbert may have violated the rules of official Washington with a comedy routine that may have had more attendees cringing than laughing.

The annual dinner is Washington's prom, homecoming and Oscars all rolled into one night. It's a night for elbow-rubbing between the press and the people they cover. Whether the idea of a newspaper publisher or network anchor dining and drinking with cabinet secretaries and senators is a good one is a topic for another time but this is, for better or worse, one way high-level connections are made in the nation's capital. Throw in a few movie, rock and sports stars in black-tie attire and you've got yourself a bona fide event.

Of course, the highlights of the dinner are the comedy routines. First, the sitting president does something self-deprecating to prove his ability to laugh at himself. That part is nearly guaranteed to succeed despite the quality of the material (which has been top-notch in recent years). President Bush did not disappoint this year, handing in a routine featuring an impersonator as his private thoughts. Regardless of what's happening to the president politically, it's pretty much guaranteed he'll get a few laughs.

The celebrity entertainer faces a much tougher job trying to negotiate the many landmines in official Washington while being funny and edgy at the same time. The success rate there is much lower. Some comedians just don't connect with this "inside" power crowd, some play it too safe and, sometimes, they just aren't funny. Being just unfunny is one thing. A much more serious offense is to make the president angry.

Colbert may have done just that, according to Editor & Publisher's take of the event:

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.
As Colbert walked from the podium, when it was over, the president and First Lady gave him quick nods, unsmiling. The president shook his hand and tapped his elbow, and left immediately.

Those seated near Bush told E&P's Joe Strupp, who was elsewhere in the room, that Bush had quickly turned from an amused guest to an obviously offended target as Colbert's comments brought up his low approval ratings and problems in Iraq.

Several veterans of past dinners, who requested anonymity, said the presentation was more directed at attacking the president than in the past. Several said previous hosts, like Jay Leno, equally slammed both the White House and the press corps.

"This was anti-Bush," said one attendee. "Usually they go back and forth between us and him." Another noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy. "You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert," he reported.

Here's how the USA Today saw the event:
Colbert's humor was so satirical and silly that left some people bewildered and others tearing up with laughter.

In a sincere sounding voice, he said, "It is my privilege to celebrate this president. Because we're not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we're not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than in your head? Now I know somebody will say I did look it up and that's not true. That's because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works."

He mentions his various beliefs, including, "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. Ladies and gentlemen, believe in yogurt. I refuse to believe it's not butter. I believe in this president. I know there are some polls out there that say 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. Reality, that's a well known liberal bias."

So far, most of the coverage has focused on Bush's routine, but Colbert's performance is boiling over in the blogosphere and it's unlikely to just go away. It reminds me of the flap created by radio host Don Imus when he delivered a shock-jock performance at the dinner in 1996. His jokes about President Clinton's womanizing (pre-Monica) made the White House angry enough to ask C-SPAN not to re-air the dinner (they did run it again).

Imus, whose show Clinton appeared on as a candidate, was nearly black-balled by Washington society. Some journalists refused to continue appearing on the program, others kept their distance for awhile. At the time, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed: "Washington press dinners are based on a charade. If political humor is going to be really funny, it has to be impolite. But the press and the pols want to cozy up, so the comedy is supposed to singe but never burn, as the Gridiron motto goes."

Of course, the tangible result was safer entertainment in following years. Afraid of a repeat, the entertainment became more bland and predictable – in other words, less funny. After watching Colbert's performance, I'm not convinced it merits Imus-level hysteria. It was tough and perhaps a little unfair, but that should have been expected from someone who skewers conservatives by playing a parody of a conservative cable host. I couldn't really tell how President Bush reacted to it, but he shook his hand afterwards. Colbert might not be your cup of tea, but doesn't it say a lot about the nature of Washington, and our political life, when even a comedian can be so controversial?

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