One Year After Colbert Flap: Are WH Correspondents Playing It Safe?

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By: Joe Strupp

After last year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner host Stephen Colbert drew mixed reactions to his sharp critiques of President Bush, event organizers appear to be going for a less-combative approach, choosing aging impersonator Rich Little for the pending April event.

Following recent dinners that boasted the likes Colbert, Cedric the Entertainer and Jon Stewart, choosing Little, whose career dates back decades and whose humor is often milder than Colbert or Stewart, indicates a change in approach.

“My approach is to try to make it a comfortable venue that is enjoyable, funny and interesting,” said Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents Association, who chose Little. “But you don’t want to offend anyone.” He cited the slogan for the Washington Gridiron Dinner, which says, “singe, don’t burn.”

Ron Hutcheson, a McClatchy Newspapers reporter and former WHCA president who organized the 2005 dinner, said Colbert’s impact might have sparked a calmer choice this year, which he supported. “It is certainly a safe choice, which might be nice,” he said. “The single most difficult thing about the dinner is lining up entertainment. There is never much of a budget and I have found that coordinating their schedules with our schedules are difficult.”

Hutcheson also said that having a less-combative host might help the dinner return to its goal of giving reporters and politicians a fun evening together, without the controversy that has sometimes entered into the dinner. “My personal feeling is that this [the Little pick] is about ENOUGH” he said of the fallout from last year. “We don’t need to have a blogfest and a partisan slugfest after the dinner. We don’t need that.”

Scully contends that Colbert’s appearance was a success and played no part in the choice of Little. “I think some of the criticism of Colbert was overblown,” he said. “We didn’t hear anything from the White House.”

Colbert appearance drew both praise and criticism after the Comedy Central star took piercing shots at Bush, his handling of the Iraq War and other serious issues. Among the high points was Colbert jokingly defending Bush’s shakeup of White House personnel at the time, saying it was not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “This administration is soaring, not sinking,” he said. “If anything, they are re-arranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.”

Later, Colbert said “I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” He also made cutting barbs about the press corps.

Mark Smith, last year’s WHCA president and an AP radio reporter, acknowledged that Colbert’s performance drew a “strong reaction. People e-mailed me a lot, but it is part of the deal,” Smith said Tuesday. “I had plenty of fallout, but that is something we need to live with in the Internet age.”

When Hutcheson oversaw the event, he said Cedric the Entertainer was the only one of five performers who were approached who could or would do it. He recalls Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres and Tina Fey declining.

Scully acknowledged that getting someone who can appeal to the broad group at the dinner, and not offend too heavily, is difficult. “I was trying to get someone who is funny and he does presidential humor better than anyone,” Scully said of Little, who hosted previously in 1984. “When I saw him recently on David Letterman, I thought he was on top of his game.”

Little’s appearance also coincides with a plan to make the evening more of a look at the history of presidential humor, Scully said.

Scully added that getting the hottest, hippest entertainer is not always the best thing for the Washington crowd, whose participants span many different decades. “There are some people who think if you don’t know Stephen Colbert, you don’t get his brand of humor,” Scully said. “You want someone who appeals to the Bob Novaks and the bloggers of the world.”

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Related:

WHCA Chief Says He Did Not Tell Comedian to Back Off Bush and Iraq

‘Truthiness’ Prevails: Colbert’s Speech at Correspondents’ Dinner Was E&P’s Most Popular Story of 2006

E&P Nightly Video: After Colbert Controversy, White House Correspondents Demand Little

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