The last time we saw Richard Cohen, he was proudly bragging about his own stupidity. No, really. These days, he's decided that he's fit to lecture us all on how dreadfully unfunny and rude Stephen Colbert was at Saturday night's WHCA dinner. (Seriously. Watch the video. Judge for yourself.)
First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy. This is well known in certain circles, which is why, even back in elementary school, I was sometimes asked by the teacher to "say something funny" -- as if the deed could be done on demand.Can't you just hear Milhouse's voice, plaintively screeching "My mom says I'm cool!"
The commentary, though, is also what I do, and it will make the point that Colbert was not just a failure as a comedian but rude. Rude is not the same as brash. It is not the same as brassy. It is not the same as gutsy or thinking outside the box. Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush.So it was rude of Colbert to mock the President in a situation where the President couldn't respond? How about when the President mocks the dead, as he did when he was a Presidential candidate? The dead, after all, are prevented from responding to attacks far more surely than the President of the United States.
How about when the President mocks the dying, as he did in 2004? The soldiers who continue to die in Iraq (2400 and counting, now) and the civilians who die in far larger numbers are dying for a war based on lies, and this President has the gall to mock them all. Even if they'd been at the 2004 dinner, they could not respond. They're dead.
But to Richard Cohen, it was Colbert who was taking advantage of Commander Codpiece's "sense of decorum or tradition or civility". Even if you grant this is true, why not? I actually agree with Cohen in one sense - Colbert wasn't especially funny. Some of his lines died on delivery, and he flubbed one joke. So what? Colbert wasn't trying to make the press laugh, and he especially wasn't trying to humour the jackass sitting two seats down from him. Colbert's most honest line of the night was "I have nothing but contempt for these people."
Colbert's objective - and it was obvious to anyone not blinded by their own egos being trampled - was to puncture the sense of coziness between the Press and the White House. Cohen says that Colbert wasn't being brave, because no possible consequence could have befallen him for his remarks at the WHCA.
Stop right there for a moment - anti-Bush celebrities have been getting death threats since 9/11. So to say that Colbert is risking nothing in Bush's America is an offensive lie, and Cohen knows it. He just thinks that the Dixie Chicks deserved their trouble.
But let's grant Cohen's argument - that Colbert is unlikely to be killed, or face any consequence for his monologue. That doesn't make it not brave. There is a certain bravery in pointing out other people's cowardice, after all. This was the point to Colbert's most cutting line of the night:
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!What pisses off Cohen so much is that a comedian - a comedian! - managed to unmask the nasty, festering incest between the Press and the White House, in a way that makes it impossible to ignore: The WHCA is the perfect icon of that same cozy relationship, after all.
The reason this is so offensive to Cohen is quite simple: He thinks this is the way things oughta be. He's okay with the Press, the government, and big business colluding to control what people say in to the cameras, where the little people might hear things they're not supposed to. Colbert broke the cardinal rule of a White House function (aside from asking why the US invaded Iraq, I mean): He - just for a moment, sadly - disrupted the narrative that the Press and the State work so hard to build and preserve. This is why Colbert needs to be silenced and ignored by the major press, just as Helen Thomas has been ignored.
Had Colbert done this in 2002, he'd be talking about how Bush stole Florida. And Cohen would be tut-tutting away, asking why he was so rude to bring up ancient history like that.