Shame and Sadness in Washington: The White House Correspondents Dinner
In the best of times, gathering a room full of reporters and celebrities to laugh at the President is not without awkward moments, and these are far from the best of times. As a comedy writer, I was always transfixed by the White House Correspondents Dinner. You get a chance to hear the President trying to be funny followed by a major comedic star like tonight’s Steven Colbert. This was by far the most awkward of these functions that I’ve seen, mainly because the times are so terrible. Who wants to laugh it up in a tuxedo when 70 soldiers got killed this month in Iraq?
President Bush appeared with the actor who impersonates him on the Tonight Show, and it was weird. Oh sure, the laughs were there, most notably when the real President Bush said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m feeling chipper tonight. I survived the White House shake-up.” What struck me is that the guy playing the fake W. seemed more presidential. He was more substantial as a human being than the real version. Why should an actor have to dumb way down to do a convincing impression of our President? It was clever and funny but it was also deeply sad and creepy.
Steven Colbert did his entire set in his sarcastic spoof character, which is a very dangerous thing from a comedy standpoint. If the crowd doesn’t get right onboard, you’re stuck in this role – you concede a lot when you go that narrow. It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot, but these days what’s there to laugh about? Steven laid it on about Iraq and everything else. He saw what happened to Jon Stewart at the Academy Awards and he wasn’t going to err on the side of wimpy. He got after it and the crowd cringed at times with the awkwardness of the tone, especially following the President’s attempt at down-home “I’m a good guy” humor. Of course by now, that aww-shucks act has worn out for around 68% of the American people, and most in the room. But the President got more laughs because it was farther from reality. Everyone took a breather from what's really going on, and sunk into the folksy stuff. Colbert reminded the press how much they don’t like this President and our current predicament with every line. He said, "I believe the government that governs best governs least, so by those standards we've set up a marvelous government in Iraq." He also attacked the press for the weakling job they've done the last few years as journalists. Colbert was in their face, and they weren't exactly loving it.
There were also old clips on C-SPAN during dinner from past presidents and it was telling. Kennedy and Clinton stood out as being real stars. Frankly, every clip of a president before W. came off as a putdown – like they were deliberately trying to insult W. by showing what presidents used to be like.
I thought back to the Clinton appearance with Jay Leno following him to the podium. When Jay headed to Washington for that, he was interviewed by USA Today and he used one of my jokes in the paper. The Elian Gonzalez extraction from the house in Florida, had just happened and my joke was, “First, let’s be fair to Janet Reno. It went a lot better than Waco.”
I watched and taped the dinner that night, hoping that Leno would use one of my jokes directly to the president, and the Washington establishment. That would have been so cool. It didn’t happen, but I remember how keyed up I was.
What struck me tonight is how far I am from that person now. They could have let me write the entire monologue tonight and the thrill wouldn’t be the same. Not with what’s happened to this country the last few years. It’s just not as funny anymore. Watching the Washington establishment file in, I felt like they looked weary, depressed, and a little ashamed – ashamed to be contributing this particular page to the history of America.