When Stephen Colbert Spoke Truthiness to Power
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because roasts are supposed to burn, even when it’s the president on the grill.
It may have been the most electrifying 23 minutes in C-SPAN history. Perhaps the public affairs network’s only electrifying minutes. It will certainly go down as one of the biggest booking blunders in corporate entertainment history. Like Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, comedian Stephen Colbert delivered his address at the Hilton Washington hotel in 2006 to a subdued crowd laden with reporters and government officials. Unlike Lincoln’s brief oration, however, Colbert’s address was not particularly profound. But it was bold, and profoundly funny, even if it wasn’t to many of those in attendance. It was, as comedy icon Jon Stewart put it, “ballsalicious.”
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, now ubiquitously referred to as the “Nerd Prom,” is an occasionally edgy but largely tame affair. When Larry Wilmore takes the podium on April 30 for this year’s installment, he will join the roster of big-name comedians from Richard Pryor to Conan O’Brien who have taken their shot at roasting an American president before the annual gathering of politicians, journalists and celebrities. But 10 years ago, when Colbert got the nod during George W. Bush’s presidency, he seized his moment to speak truth to power. And as was soon apparent, putting Colbert on that stage with Bush was like pointing a loaded comedic gun at a sitting president — with no Secret Service agents to protect him from the barrage of fire.
Colbert gave a devastating critique of Bush’s presidency, dressed up as a full-throated defense.
By 2006, the George W. Bush presidency was considered by many journalists to be an unmitigated disaster. For the American comedian class, however, it was a veritable gold mine, from the president’s malapropisms to his “Mission Accomplished” flight suit. And so when Colbert, a former correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, took to the airwaves on the inaugural edition of The Colbert Report in October 2005 and promised viewers he would “feel the truth” at them, it was clear the White House was in his crosshairs.
Six months later, when Mark Smith, a reporter for the Associated Press and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), introduced Colbert that fateful evening, he warned: “Tonight, no one is safe.” How right he was. Smith later told The New York Times that he had expected some uncomfortable moments, but admitted he had not seen much of Colbert’s show prior to booking him for the black-tie affair.
Those who had seen Colbert’s show recognized it right away, as the comedian, acting as a faux conservative pundit, began by addressing “my hero, George W. Bush,” in a riff borrowed almost verbatim from the Report’s initial “truthiness” episode: “Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir?”
From there, Colbert delivered a devastating critique of Bush’s presidency, dressed up as a full-throated defense. “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least,” he proclaimed. “And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.”
And if the White House side of the dinner was no longer amused, many from the correspondents section of the audience were softly chuckling to themselves. Until Colbert redirected his fire. “Over the last five years, you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence,” Colbert said to the assembled reporters. “We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.”
Ouch. But unbowed by the increasingly silent room or visibly appalled Bush supporters, some of whom walked out in protest, Colbert soldiered on. “Colbert’s shtick is basically enthusiastic obtuseness wrapped around a straw man of political incorrectness — and it didn’t sell,” Rich Markey, the author of A Million Laughs: The Funny History of American Comedy, tells OZY.
But the reaction in the liberal blogosphere, where the video went viral, was quite different. While New York Times columnist Frank Rich would later call Colbert’s performance a “cultural primary” and a “defining moment” of that year’s midterm elections, the mainstream media’s first reaction to it — perhaps because of the scolding they’d received — was, as Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin argued, “largely to ignore it,” even at the expense of the bigger story, namely that “the Bush Bubble was forcibly violated, right there on national television.”
Not everyone in the Hilton ballroom was unamused. The performance had at least one big dissenter in the room: Antonin Scalia. Reaction shots show the late Supreme Court justice often, as Slate put it, “giggling like a schoolgirl,” even as Colbert poked fun at him. As Colbert recently reflected on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “when it was over, no one was even making eye contact with me.” The exception? Scalia, who came over and told Colbert he was “great,” something the comedian will “forever be grateful” for.
The WHCA played it safer the following year, opting for 68-year-old impressionist Rich Little. You can watch or relive Colbert’s performance in all of its C-SPAN glory below. Good times, as far as we knew.