John Walker's Electronic House

The Colbert Rapport

by on May.02, 2006, under The Rest

If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that this past weekend there was the annual White House Correspondents (sic) Dinner. Not something that’s usually reported outside of the US, but was made more international by the sketch George W. Bush perfomed alongside an impersonator. The sketch, oddly, was very funny, with Bush lampooning his own inability to speak English, his dislike of speaking in public, and his extremely low approval ratings. He performs well, and is even endearing in his efforts not to corpse while his spitting image delivers the funniest lines. That’s right up until about three seconds after it ends when you realise, “Hang on – if he’s aware he can’t speak, doesn’t want to speak, and is believed to be doing a bad job by over 2/3 of the US, a) how come he’s not addressing it, and b) he thinks that’s funny? The shock factor of Bush himself performing well-written anti-Bush jokes is enough to engage, but upon further thought becomes deeply terrifying. It was enough to get reported in the UK and elsewhere.

However, what wasn’t reported in the UK and elsewhere, disturbingly including the USA, was the main speaker for the evening, Stephen Colbert. Currently riding high with the success of his excellent Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report (pronounced “Colberr Reporr”), the honour of giving the main speech at the dinner, which is intended to poke fun at the president, was his. From the reaction it seems no one was quite expecting what Colbert had to say.

In character, he addressed the audience from the perspective of his programme, ironically adopting a Fox News-like stance in order to make a mockery of it. Throughout, Bush was sat two chairs to his right.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Bush, having done his own 32% approval joke (the doppelganger saying, “Why couldn’t I have dinner with the 32% of people who like me?”), smiled. Colbert went on, directly addressing him,

“So, Mr. President, please… pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it’s two-thirds empty. There’s still some liquid in that glass is my point. But I wouldn’t drink it. The last third is usually backwash.”

The first hissed response from the 3000-strong crowd of journalists was inspired by,

“I believe in democracy. I believe democracy is our greatest export. At least until China figures out a way to stamp it out of plastic for three cents a unit. In fact, Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong, welcome. Your great country makes our Happy Meals possible.”

The second from,

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

The word “rubble” seemed to do it.

What made the speech most interesting, however, was his turning on the press themselves. As Colbert’s programme exists to satirise the abysmal state of American news programming, it was only appropriate.

“But, listen, 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. Just put ’em 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.”

Obviously in print these jokes are not exactly world-destroying, but in context they were remarkable. I cannot stress enough, George W. Bush was two chairs to his right, and looking increasingly furious throughout. Those of the audience whom he hadn’t attacked were wavering in fear of the peculiarly uncomfortable air in the room, and the it all finished with a superb film of Colbert’s attempt to audition for the position of Whitehouse Press Secretary, which became a smart statement on the Bush administration’s inability to answer simple questions.

The quotes here are courtesy of the excellent transcript on Daily Kos.

The second half of Colbert’s speech can be seen, in terrible quality, on Crooks and Liars.

The whole event is obviously floating around on bittorrent, and was broadcast by C-Span.

EDIT: Thank Lewis. You can also watch it here.

Not one network showed clips of the speech, nor reported it. (I believe the Washington Post has finally gotten around to mentioning it, but then you’d expect them to). Shocking.

Colbert is a hero.

Other favourite lines include:

“Mayor Nagin! Mayor Nagin is here from New Orleans, the chocolate city! Yeah, give it up. Mayor Nagin, I’d like to welcome you to Washington, D.C., the chocolate city with a marshmallow center. And a graham cracker crust of corruption. It’s a Mallomar, I guess is what I’m describing, a seasonal cookie.”

“Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, “Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring! If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.”

“Joe Wilson is here, Joe Wilson right down here in front, the most famous husband since Desi Arnaz. And of course he brought along his lovely wife Valerie Plame. Oh, my god! Oh, what have I said? I am sorry, Mr. President, I meant to say he brought along his lovely wife, Joe Wilson’s wife.” [Oh my God, that joke’s so clever]

14 Comments for this entry

  • Lewis

    Links to decent quality footage of the full thing here:

  • Roy

    I saw that this evening. Sitting with an American – she was almost crying little tears of joy at it!

  • Grill

    That is beautiful. Hurrah for John & Colberrr..!

  • Steve W

    Incredibly annoying.

    Not the speech itself, which had some very good bits (and some not so good), but the subsequent cretinous reaction of what seems to be most of the blogosphere. This isn’t aimed at your post, which is complimentary yet measured. No, I’m referring to the idiots who have been saying this kind of thing (from the comments section of the Daily Kos article you linked to):

    “In all seriousness, Colbert’s performance was one of the bravest and most courageous I’ve ever seen.”

    You utter cretin.

    And then there’s this lunacy:

    “A comedian emerges as the Edward R. Murrow of our day.”

    F*ck off. Now.

  • Steve W

    More comments:

    “Along with the revolt of the Generals this is very important…This may break the back of this President–I think it is that important.”

    I could go on; the comments thread ( ) really is full of it.

  • Pirateguybrush

    Sorry about my earlier comment, it wasn’t meant to be viral – I just read your excellent article, “Confessions Of A Crybaby”, and noticed you mentioned TLJ – thought you might be interested, is all. My apologies if you already knew about it, I really didn’t mean it as spam. Oh, and I know it’s “sequel”, everyone makes typos :).

  • Graham

    The Colbert speech isn’t going to break the back of anything – Bush has survived worse, and will continue to exist till the end his term. But considered in the context of the American media, it’s not hard to understand why the blogosphere is reacing how they are.

    Colbert isn’t Murrow, but he’s kept his balls in a situation where pretty much everyone else has lost them.

  • Steve W

    That we’re even having to debate whether Colbert can be favourably compared to Morrow is staggering to me. And that’s leaving aside the fact that most of these people seem to have got their information about Morrow, McCarthy and the communist witch-hunts solely from one bloody film, the viewing of which they seem to think makes them the supreme upholders of truth, justice and liberty.

    It’s as if Colbert has single-handedly brought about the downfall of the entire Bush adminstration for some of these idiots, when in the real world, if anyone is pausing for consideration at all, it’s to shrug and move on.

    Of course the reaction is understandable; it doesn’t stop it being utterly devoid of reason.

  • admin

    Steve, you’re not doing your hermeneutics.

    If you stood up at an Iranian presidential dinner and did the most mild political jokes in the history of existence, it would be one hell of a move. If you said them about Blair, you’d look more pathetic than the bastard offspring of Rory Bremner and Hugh Dennis.

    What Colbert did was a *big deal*, and failing to recognise this is failing to take any notice of the culture in which it happened. YES, if you said that about Blair at a UK conference it wouldn’t be that huge, but that isn’t what happened, and it isn’t where it happened. No one’s ever done that before. And yes, that’s not good enough, and yes, that’s indicative of an inherent poverty, but it’s still the case. And he still did it. And he deserves credit for that, and the reaction is understandable.

    There’s a deep oppression of a political voice occuring in the US, and when it gets through it’s shocking and affecting. Going, “Blah blah, he only said a few rude things,” is daft. He said things to the *President of the United States* that no one’s said before.

  • Steve W

    I agree with most of what you’ve just said. It doesn’t stop some of the reaction to it being completely overboard. I’ll admit a certain ignorance when it comes to political satire in the US, though it seems to me that they’re usually better at it than in the UK.

    It was funny (for the most part; some of it was rambling), it was scathing, it was even brave to do it while Bush was almost within touching distance. What it wasn’t was something which will change things in any shape, way or form. That’s fine; there’s a lot to be said for standing up and doing the right thing whether it will have a positive effect or not, and my problem isn’t with Colbert or what he said. It is solely with the moronic reaction of some of the comment. Can you really defend with a straight face some of stuff on the site and in the comments at Daily Kos?

    And while Colbert has done what many a decent lefty has long dreamed of doing (sitting Bush down and telling him exactly what one thinks of him, the adminstration and the affiliated media), I find it difficult to believe that it’s anything Bush wasn’t aware of before.

    Was it a big deal? For Colbert, even for political satire and criticism in the US, yes. In the long run, probably not. There’s a lot of hope attached to this, and some people are going to be very disappointed when this disappears. Does that stink? Of course it does, and maybe I’m being too much of a curmudgeon about it, but I just don’t want to see people latching onto unfair expectations.

  • Tim R

    The whole occasion seems extraordinary to me. I haven’t seen the Bush double act, but I assume they thought they could get something favourable out of it, such as an impression that Bush could be funny, meek instead of arrogant, able to listen to criticism. Otherwise why do it?

    And Colbert – I suppose it could have been a trap that backfired. They were surely aware of who he was before hiring him. They knew what he’d like to say, but thought he wouldn’t have the nerve with the president a few feet away – that he’d be awed by all the power in the room. And if he makes a mild mannered speech that they can spin to seem supportive then all his power as a satirist has been swiped from him. Besides, should the plan backfire, and he does what he actually did, it’s ok because the news everyone reads and watches won’t print it or show it anyway. Sure a few bloggers get het up, but they have very little power to do anything – and next minute they’ll be discussing Tomb Raider with just as much passion.

  • admin

    Yeah, but there are always idiots who overreact to anything – you seemed to be letting that reflect on the original performance, which seems odd.

  • admin

    I really have no idea why this has become about whether he’s single-handedly brought down the Bush administration. A few idiots make some overblown comments on a forum? Er. Did we start listening to that?

    What’s interesting and important is that it went *unreported*. It was as if it never happened, his appearance at the evening an after-thought, if mentioned at all. I’ve heard a rumour that C-SPAN repeated it with the Colbert speech removed, although that’s unconfirmed.

    Who cares if some morons spout hyperbole? We ignore them as we always do. But don’t lose sight of the media silence on a speech that so heavily attacked media silence.

    Jon Stewart had some nice comments on Monday’s Daily Show. He finished saying, “Stephen, we’ve never been more proud of you buddy.” Then pointed at the camera, hesitated for two beats, and added, “Holy shit.”

    In Colbert’s own programme, after boasting (in character) of how he had enraptured the audience, he showed a clip of the speech – the Hindenberg gag – to which they’d edited shots of the audience staring blank-faced, with crickets chirping.

  • Steve W

    “What’s interesting and important is that it went *unreported*. It was as if it never happened, his appearance at the evening an after-thought, if mentioned at all…don’t lose sight of the media silence on a speech that so heavily attacked media silence.”

    No, that’s a good point, and one worth making as loudly as anyone wants.

    I guess I did get a bit caught up today in attacking the idiocy spouted by what is probably a minority of morons and woolly thinkers.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks for this entry

  • Rossignol » Aircraft Carriers and Rubble and Recently Flooded City Squares

    […] Most of you will have read this already, but for those of you who skipped it because it looked like a lot of words, or simply don’t read Walker’s blog, take the time to read his report on Stephen Colbert’s speech at the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner. […]

  • Preoccupations

    Stephen Colbert, satirist supreme

    I remember Ian Hislop once saying how he had tried to take a satirical programme (a version of Spitting Image?) to the States, only to be met with disbelief: ‘You mean you want to make fun of the President?’. Which