By: Greg Mitchell
It had some tough competition, but let it be known: Our coverage of Stephen Colbert’s blistering/hysterical speech before President Bush and White House reporters last April 29 easily drew more traffic than any other E&P story this year.
Here it is again as our holiday gift to you, as reported by Joe Strupp and your humble editor. Other links at the end. Many of the pundits in the crowd, such as Richard Cohen, quickly deemed the Stephen Colbert speech not funny, or even inappropriate. You be the judge. And happy holidays.
WASHINGTON — A blistering comedy ?tribute? to President Bush by Comedy Central?s faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night left George and Laura Bush unsmiling at its close.
Earlier, the president had delivered his talk to the 2,700 attendees, including many celebrities and top officials, with the help of a Bush impersonator.
Colbert, who spoke in the guise of his talk-show character, who ostensibly supports the president strongly, urged Bush to ignore his low approval ratings, saying they were based on reality, ?and reality has a well-known liberal bias.?
He attacked those in the press who claim that the shake-up at the White House was merely re-arranging the 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.?
Colbert told Bush he could end the problem of protests by retired generals by refusing to let them retire. He compared Bush to Rocky Balboa in the ?Rocky? movies, always getting punched in the face ? ?and Apollo Creed is everyone else in the world.?
Turning to the war, he declared, “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 noted former Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the crowd, just three tables away from Karl Rove, and that he had brought ” Valerie Plame.” Then, worried that he had named her, he corrected himself, as Bush aides might do, “Uh, I mean … he brought Joseph Wilson’s wife.” He might have “dodged the bullet,” he said, as prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wasn’t there.
Colbert also made biting cracks about missing WMDs, ?photo ops? on aircraft carriers and at hurricane disasters, melting glaciers and Vice President Cheney shooting people in the face. He advised the crowd, “if anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers and somebody from the N.S.A. will be right over with a cocktail.”
Observing that Bush sticks to his principles, he said, “When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday — no matter what happened Tuesday.”
Also lampooning the press, Colbert complained that he was ?surrounded by the liberal media who are destroying this country, except for Fox News. Fox believes in presenting both sides of the story ? the president?s side and the vice president?s side.” In another slap at the news channel, he said: “I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the No Fact Zone. Fox News, I own the copyright on that term.”
He also reflected on the alleged good old days for the president, when the media was still swallowing the WMD story.
Addressing the reporters, he said, “Let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions, he?s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction.”
He claimed that the Secret Service name for Bush’s new press secretary is “Snow Job.”
Colbert closed his routine with a video fantasy where he gets to be White House Press Secretary, complete with a special ?Gannon? button on his podium. By the end, he had to run from Helen Thomas and her questions about why the U.S. really invaded Iraq and killed all those people.
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.
After the gathering, Snow, while nursing a Heineken outside the Chicago Tribune reception, declined to comment on Colbert. ?I?m not doing entertainment reviews,? he said. ?I thought the president was great, though.?
Strupp, in the crowd during the Colbert routine, had observed that quite a few sitting near him looked a little uncomfortable at times, perhaps feeling the material was a little too biting — or too much speaking “truthiness” (a word Colbert popularized) to power.
Asked by E&P after it was over if he thought he’d been too harsh, Colbert said, “Not at all.” Was he trying to make a point politically or just get laughs? “Just for laughs,” he said. He said he did not pull any material for being too strong, just for time reasons. (He later said the president told him “good job” when he walked off.)
Helen Thomas told Strupp her segment with Colbert was “just for fun.”
In its report on the affair, USA Today asserted that some in the crowd cracked up over Colbert but others were “bewildered.” Wolf Blitzer of CNN said he thought Colbert was funny and “a little on the edge.”
Earlier, the president had addressed the crowd with a Bush impersonator alongside, with the faux-Bush speaking precisely and the real Bush deliberately mispronouncing words, such as the inevitable “nuclear.” At the close, Bush called the imposter “a fine talent. In fact, he did all my debates with Senator Kerry.” The routine went over well with this particular crowd — better than did Colbert’s, in fact, for whatever reason.
Among attendees at the black tie event: Morgan Fairchild, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Justice Antonin Scalia, George Clooney, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers — in a kilt.
For more coverage, see E&P editor Greg Mitchell’s recent column comparing Colbert’s speech to Bush’s 2004 WMD skit, Joe Strupp’s follow-up on the controversy, and the reams upon reams of letters we’ve received about this article.
— One Year After Colbert Flap: Are WH Correspondents Playing It Safe?
— WHCA Chief Says He Did Not Tell Comedian to Back Off Bush and Iraq
— E&P Nightly Video: After Colbert Controversy, White House Correspondents Demand Little