Stephen Colbert’s performance at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner raised one question in my mind: Why is a serious critic, albeit a satirist, doing cozying up to the object of his disdain?
Abbie Hoffman, the late Yuppie activist said, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” The convention of the association banquet is one of roasting the president and the press equally. West Wingers, Supreme Court justices, and members of the White House press corps turned out in their evening clothes for occasion and all emerged with slightly singed wings but why did Stephen Colbert’s performance seem to go way over the top?
Our national consciousness is dealing with grave matters of life and death. With 2417 United States soldiers dead in Iraq and 285 dead in Afghanistan, we are approaching 2948, the number confirmed dead in the World Trade Center bombing. Our soldiers are being killed due to the adventurism of this president and his Strangelove advisers. Arguably, if he had confined our armies to a war in the land from which we were attacked, 2417 families would not be laying wreaths on the graves of their sons and daughters: another 37,000+ would not be seriously injured facing a lifetime without a limb or with severe post-traumatic stress. Many of our citizens on the Left hold that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld are war criminals. So what’s so funny?
We may relish any opportunity that we get to puncture this insulated president’s bubble but the real complaints against him are so serious that even this annual roast is too casual an affair in which to do it.
The White House Press Correspondents are peculiarly positioned. If they report something that the administration does not want reported, they can be ignored at press briefings or kept from the White House altogether. Thus, access to the news depends on a cordial relationship with the Oval Office. The fact is that the attempt to maintain civility damages the impartiality of the Fourth Estate. If the press is the guardian of the public interest and a watchdog on the activities of the government, then why does it submit to the whims of the White House?
It’s no secret that George W. Bush has controlled information more closely than any president in history. To learn that he secretly declassified the information about Valerie Plame was really no surprise. His strictly disciplined White House has kept leaks to a minimum so who else (besides Cheney) would have risked his job to publish her name? And who else had motive? And stranger still, what were Valerie Plame and her husband, Joseph Wilson, doing at the dinner, laughing at Colbert’s jibes? Bush’s vicious outing cost Plame her career so why were they laughing?
W’s secretive nature was evident during his presidential campaigns. When asked about his alcohol and drug abuse, he said simply, “When I was young and wild, I was young and wild,” and no one could pry another word from him. His staffers filtered out any hecklers or dissenters from his campaign stops. Neither the American press nor the American people held his feet to the fire. He did not want to discuss his past and that was that. The reports of drunken arrests were similarly ignored. Even the report of his AWOL from the Air National Guard did not succeed in stopping his campaign or bringing down his presidency. As a protestor at a recent demonstration wrote on her sign, “Will someone give W. a blow-job so we can impeach him?”
In politics as in academia, a certain level of civility is expected in public discourse. Glimpses into debate in the United States Senate show the Senators addressing each other as “The Distinguished Gentleman from Virginia” or the “Honorable Member from Florida,” even though their debates may be poisonous. The principle, that “reasonable men may differ,” is one that every first-year law student (male and female) learns the first week of school.
The best journalists, however, have transgressed that line and would be unlikely to gain access to the White House pressroom. I.F. Stone, Bob Scheer, Daniel Schorr, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, not only rankled the presidents whose administrations they covered; the latter three helped to bring down Richard Nixon. We have not seen similar courage by the rest of the media in regards to this administration.
Stephen Colbert’s criticisms were on the mark but the White House Press Correspondents Association dinner was the wrong venue. Satirists and members of the press should make a clear demarcation between themselves and the government. I can’t imagine that the dean of our country’s great satirists, Mark Twain, would be caught dead at a White House Press Correspondents dinner or any event with a president like George W. Bush, neither should Stephen Colbert or any journalist or satirist who believes in the duty of The Fourth Estate.
It’s time to make a clear border between the press and the government, and make the government accountable to the people.
Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros is an Associate Professor of Latin American History and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Her URL is http://drpegueros.googlepages.com/home Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org