Two Years Ago: When Stephen Colbert Mocked the President — and the Media — After Dinner

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By: Greg Mitchell

Tonight, George W. Bush will enjoy or endure his final White House Correspondents Association dinner. His aides report that he will be in self-mocking mode, even using some jokes he discarded last year because of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Craig Ferguson is this year’s comic relief.

At E&Pyesterday we revealed that The New York Times is skipping the event, on principle, having belatedly come to the conclusion that this social mingling of reporters and the people they cover is a little unseemly.

This seems like an apt moment to recall Stephen Colbert’s now-famous routine at this dinner two years ago. It was so critical, and effective, that the association reacted by trotting out Rich Little, who most people thought had passed away, for last year’s dinner, which was a total flop.

What most forget is that Colbert pointed daggers at the press as well as the president — and many in the media responded by panning his performance in the days that followed.

That night, E&P was influential in spreading the word about the routine. It went up on our site just minutes after Colbert concluded, based on my observations via TV and comments from our Joe Strupp, who was on the scene.

The article was picked up by many news sites and generated millions of page views for E&P and some of those sites. With that in place, it was harder for the mainstream pundits to convince most people that Colbert was “not funny” and “a failure.”

Here is my original article:
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A blistering comedy “tribute” to President Bush by Comedy Central’s faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent Dinner tonight 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 everything 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.”

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.” Then he warned: “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. One noted that Bush quickly turned unhappy: “You could see he stopped smiling about halfway through Colbert.”

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. Helen Thomas told Strupp her segment with Colbert was “just for fun.”

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.”

Earlier, the president had addressed the crowd with a Bush impersonator alongside, with the near-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 low-brow routine went over well with the crowd.

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.
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Greg Mitchell’s new book is “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.”

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